Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin dead at 76

Benjamin passed away on Tuesday, August 20. Perhaps her last public appearance was on August 10, a Saturday night, at the SABC's Johannesburg studios where she was honoured with a Standard Bank Joy of Jazz lifetime achievement award, alongside Abigail Kubeka, Dorothy Masuku, Thandi Klaasen and Sylvia Mdunyelwa. 

The jazz legend was born in October 1936 in Claremont, Cape Town, to which she returned in 2011, after 45 years based in New York. In her career she worked as a vocalist, record-label owner and band manager for her husband, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. In that period she built a remarkable oeuvre that includes albums such as Sathima Sings Ellington, Windsong, Memories and Dreams, DedicationsLovelight, Southern Touch, Cape Town Love, and Musical Echoes.  Even though she lived in the shadow of her more illustrious husband, she was an accomplished musician.   

She left South Africa in 1960 together with Ibrahim to initially settle in Zurich, Switzerland. From their Swiss base, they toured Germany, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. It was in Switzerland that they got to meet and work with some of the most exciting jazz musicians playing at the time: John Coltrane,Thelonius Monk, Dexter Gordon and, most significantly, Duke Ellington. American historian and photographer John Edwin Mason memorably recorded Benjamin recounting the night her and Ibrahim were "discovered" by Ellington.

"I don't know how I got backstage … there were all these women with their furs. You know, Duke Ellington loved the ladies, and the ladies loved him. So there were a whole lot of rich, elegant Swiss ladies, with their furs and jewels, waiting to get in his dressing room … and I'm standing there with my little Salvation Army clothes … But every time the door would open, he would catch my eye. Then at one point he said, 'Let her in'. And there I was in the room. It was a miracle," she told Mason.

She related to Mason that she begged Ellington to come "and listen to the Dollar Brand trio, I think you would be very interested. He didn't even ask me at that point what do I do. He said, 'Ok'." The trio featured Ibrahim, drummer Makaya Ntshoko and bassist Johnny Gertze. 

'Her legacy will never be forgotten'
Ellington then signed them to Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, helping to launch them onto the world stage. The rest, as they used to say, is history. Even though Ellington wanted Benjamin to join her band, she declined so that she could be close to Ibrahim, who she has two children with: son Tsakwe and daughter Tsidi (a hip-hop artist who goes by the name of Jean Grae).

Peter Tladi, head of T-Musicman and the brains behind the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, said: "We gave Sathima Bea Benjamin a lifetime achievement award as a way of honouring her contribution to the heritage of music in this country. Her legacy will never be forgotten. She made an enormous impact in the development of music in SouthAfrica and internationally." 

Writer and filmmaker Peter Makurube, probably the last journalist to interview Benjamin on August 11, expressed "shock" at the death. He and photographer Victor Dlamini spent three hours with Benjamin talking about her career, Ibrahim and other South African musicians. "We planned on going to Cape Town to continue talking with her. It's sad." 

In addition to the Standard Bank Lifetime Achievement Award, Benjamin was also awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) in 2004 by Thabo Mbeki. 

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Tourism industry hopeful of UK red list review

Meeting between scientists of both countries may pave way for removal from red list

R350 social relief grant not enough to live on

Nearly half of the population in South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — is considered chronically poor.

More top stories

Tourism industry hopeful of UK red list review

Meeting between scientists of both countries may pave way for removal from red list

Triple murder in Khayelitsha investigated by police

Three young women have been shot dead execution-style in one of Cape Town’s gang-riddled communities

Q&A Sessions: Kagiso Rabada — ‘When I retire, I will...

Kagiso Rabada talks to Eyaaz Matwadia about his love for music and production, how the lockdown affected him, and how he hopes to get back to his best

State to subpoena and fact-check Agrizzi’s ‘illness’ claims

The National Prosecuting Authority will conduct its own probe into Angelo Agrizzi’s claims of ill health, after he failed to attend court again

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…