After negotiating a very short hallway, Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima Bea Benjamin‘s suite at the Chelsea Hotel opened up to a living room with a window, and off to the left a small table mediated the entryway to the small kitchen.
Several times, while waiting for Abdullah Ibrahim to return or (other times) materialize through a doorway on the other side of the main room, I would take tea with Sathima Bea Benjamin at this table. We chatted. I would attempt to inspire her to go on at length about any subject whatsoever because I loved the sound of her lilting, singer’s voice, I loved the way her eyes would sparkle, and, I loved her light and easy consciousness. In a way, those moments constituted some of the most beautiful experiences of waiting I ever experienced.
I have a handful of diamond-like memories (from 1987-1990,) yet the main thing for me was how deeply magnanimous and optimistic was Sathima. (She once said, after I was recounted some jejune story about crappy characters in the music business, “Remember, they’re God’s Children too.”) She was very warm and welcoming and possessed an unforgettable vibe. Thank you Sathima for those precious moments hanging out.
Another memory etched in my mind is of Sathima and Tsidi, her daughter–today, the gifted storyteller and rapper Jean Grae–getting ready to go shopping. I remember Sathima spelling out the parameters and plan. I also remember everybody getting dressed up and then, with Sathima and her sister in the crowd, everybody going out ‘after hours, African style’ in NYC. Either the drummer Brian Abrahams or family friend Camara told me that evening, ‘Everybody loves Sathima.’
I saw her perform once, at Town Hall in NYC in, I believe, 1989. Town Hall was not an intimate enough space, although the concert was fine. Sathima, no doubt the finest jazz-flavored singer Africa has produced so far, struck me as being very close in vibration to Abby Lincoln, whom I would call her American counterpart. Their outstanding, shared qualities were the tremendous vulnerability and intimacy and unalloyed ‘heartfeltedness’ they achieved in opening up their humanity, and setting in their distinctive ways utterly direct communiques upon honest wings of song.
Sathima’s artistry was completely grounded in Africa at the same time she inhabited the American songbook. Again, She was in complete sympathy with the profound conjunction of words with music. When Sathima sang a standard she transformed it into universal spiritual soul music. Her own music crystalized this integration.
Over at the noguts noglory, I have set down some fantastic resources to help people dip into the deep well of Sathima Bea Benjamin’s music. Fifty years have passed since she made the Paris session with Duke Ellington. The most startling situation was that Sathima was celebrated in Cape Town in a series of performances in mid-July. As Matsuli Matthew Temple writes, this turned out to be her swan song.
Sathima, Peace Be With You (resources and music at noguts noglory blog)