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Sathima Bea Benjamin with Dollar Brand - African Songbird (CD/LP, Matsuli Music, 2013)

After the mid-1970s albums from Batsumi and Dick Khoza, This is the 4th in our series of reviews focusing on the Matsuli Music label based in London and specialized in South African jazz ancient to future. Originally recorded and released in 1976 on Rashid Vally's As-Shams ('The Sun') label, Sathima Bea Benjamin's 1976 deep vocal jazz masterpiece is another killer reissue of uplifting spiritual songs from the apartheid era in South Africa. The late, great South African jazz vocalist, accompanied by an mixed Capetonians/Americans ensemble led by her husband, famous pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, shines on this LP of original songs with a clear political subtext. Both dramatic & powerful, the album was a beacon of light in the struggle against apartheid, but only a few hundreds copies were released at the time and this essential, breathtaking reissue finally set things right. Get immersed in this crucial piece of jazz history & music of liberation, pride & unity!

Sathima Bea Benjamin with Dollar Brand African Songbird
Sathima Bea Benjamin with Dollar Brand - African Songbird
(CD/LP/Digital) Matsuli Music MM103, 2013-06

Tracklisting :
A1. Africa 21:29
B1. Music 08:54
B2. African Songbird 05:13

Note : Gatefold 180g Vinyl Edition is hand-numbered, limited to 1000 copies

Links :
Buy on
Matsuli Music : bandcamp | discogs | facebook | soundcloud | twitter | youtube

Musicians :
Sathima Bea Benjamin - Vocal
Dollar Brand - Piano
Abdullah Ibrahim - Piano
Louis Spears - Bass
Basil Moses - Bass
Lionel Beukes - Bass
Doug Sydes - Drums
Monty Weber - Drums
Billy Brooks - Trumpet
Basil Coetzee - Tenor Sax, Flute

Press Release : Matsuli Music is proud is announce the re-issue of African Songbird, the spiritual jazz masterpiece from South Africa’s greatest jazz singer, Sathima Bea Benjamin. Originally released in 1976, African Songbird was a debut long overdue. A 1959 recording, which would have been one of South Africa’s first ever jazz LPs, was shelved. Her 1963 recording with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn was put aside by Reprise’s then head of A&R, Frank Sinatra, for not being commercial enough.

African Songbird is a tour-de-force, and arguably the most dramatic and powerful release on Rashid Vally’s As-shams label. The opener, ‘Africa’, is the album’s fulcrum, a statement of breath-taking musical, personal and political complexity. It is a song of exile, of loss, and of return: a song that is both personal and universal, speaking for a people made homeless in their own land, speaking to those whose ambivalent embrace of exile ached for a homecoming. It speaks too of hope and resolution.

Africa is a personally powerful declaration from a remarkable African woman: a song of deferred self and dislocated space finally resolved in an emotional homecoming. It is a song of celebration and mourning – a heartfelt paean to her home that is shot through with the raw sorrow of lament.

Sathima’s voice, wholly unique in jazz singing, gradually sheds its musical supports as the programme develops. From the thickly-layered tumult of Africa, through the characteristic Cape Town swing that informs Music, the instrumentation is quietly reduced, then finally dispensed with. The title track is performed acapella, but for the natural sounds of the sea coast, the gulls and surf of the Cape itself. After many years of silence, two deferred albums, and over a decade of rootless exile from a home that had been made inhospitable by the inhumanity of apartheid, Sathima’s voice is finally heard, alone with her song, naturally, like a bird.

Sathima’s career has been challenged throughout by a struggle to be heard. Her repertoire was resolutely uncommercial. She never played on her African roots to gain acceptance internationally, and her complete commitment to classic jazz idioms never wavered: as an African artist, this made it difficult for audiences, critics and record companies to understand the nature of her talent. The unique genius and global success of her husband Abdullah Ibrahim (previously known as Dollar Brand) cast its own shadow, and as the mother of two children, music could not always be her first priority. These challenges were exacerbated by the pressures of political exile, and for Sathima, due recognition was late to arrive.

In recent years Sathima Bea Benjamin’s extraordinary life and unique work have received the critical attention and acclaim they richly deserve. Despite this, African Songbird, her first released record, has remained unavailable and largely unknown. This reissue remedies that situation in restoring and making available again an important keystone in South Africa’s jazz heritage.

Sathima Bea Benjamin currently lives in Cape Town. She continues to perform the material that she first recorded for this disc. In association with Rashid Vally and Sathima Bea Benjamin, Matsuli is proud to present this album in its original form, making it available again for the first time since initial release. A crucial piece of South African and global jazz history, African Songbird is courageous, revelatory music, and Sathima’s unique voice is the bearer of its message. It’s easy to see why Ellington was convinced.


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