The past few years have been good for Sathima Bea Benjamin (1936- ), an artist who seems to be "rediscovered" at least once every decade. 2008 saw the reissue of her 1963 date with Duke Ellington, A Morning in Paris, previously released only once by Enja in 1996. This year, a new film about Benjamin's life by York University Professor of Anthropology Daniel Yon, titled Sathima's Windsong, is being released (though I can't find any information about release dates or festival showings). Benjamin is famous for being the wife of Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand as much as for her own music. In fact, the greater part of her early life was spent as her husband's de facto agent, introducing him to Ellington in 1963 during a stay in Zürich, after the pair had fled Apartheid to join other South African ex-pats in Europe. Ellington, of course, would record both Ibrahim's and Benjamin's first albums; the former was Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio, while the latter, the aforementioned Morning, would wait over three decades for release.
Her first LP, African Songbird, wasn't released until 1976 on the obscure South African Gallo label. The pair had briefly returned to their native country to raise their new daughter, a visit cut short several months later by the tragic Soweto uprising. Unlike A Morning in Paris, which sounds rather traditional and Anglophone, African Songbird is a much more adventurous affair, the thick grooves on the A side recalling the pan-African efforts of other 70s LPs by the likes of Mtume, Juju, Steve Reid, Jothan Callins and others. The album comes from the Matsuli Music blog, also responsible for the rip, but no longer available there for download. The authors only provided cover art for the front of the LP, which notes the presence of Dollar Brand (electric keyboard) beneath Benjamin's leading credit. But as for who else plays on this date--the drums, bass, saxophone, flute--is a mystery to me. I don't know enough about Ibrahim's mid-70s activity to venture a guess.
Benjamin's beautiful voice is mostly limited to repetitions of short phrases, such as "Aaaaafricaaaaaa" or "Music is the spirit within you," making the political content of African Songbird mostly implied. Her willingness to sacrifice her individuality to the group--perhaps a running theme in the trajectory of her career--is clearly apparent on the lengthy A side, her voice dropping out of the mix for much of its last 10 minutes. Ibrahim is also similarly muted, restraining his virtuosity in favor of a homogeneous rhythm. The overall trend of the album is one of reduction: by track 2 ("Music"), Ibrahim's keyboard has vanished, and by track 3 ("African Songbird") Benjamin's only accompaniment is the squall of birds and the roar of the ocean. After recording African Songbird she and Ibrahim returned to America, where she founded her Ekapa label, self-releasing something like 7 albums--none of which I've heard. It's a beautiful, evocative, unique document of a turbulent era and should be counted up there with The Blue Notes's LPs as one of South Africa's greatest musical legacies.
Sathima Bea Benjamin - African Songbird (Gallo, 1976)