South African Women Thinking in Jazz
By CAROL ANN MULLER SATHIMA BEA BENJAMIN
Duke University Press Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Beginnings
It was a simple telephone call at a highly charged moment of South Africa's political history that made this book possible: hoping for an interview I called the home of the South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim in New York City on 9 February 1990, three days after State President F. W. de Klerk had announced he would lift the ban on South Africa's "liberation movements"—the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party, and the Pan-Africanist Congress. The release of perhaps the most famous political prisoner of the twentieth century, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, seemed imminent. Stunned by the sudden reversal of apartheid policy, hundreds had gathered at Riverside Church in New York City on 6 February to celebrate a moment few had believed they would see in their lifetimes. Several South African musicians who had lived for decades in cultural and political exile outside of South Africa performed at the church that evening. Ibrahim was there, and so was his wife, the jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. She answered the phone when I called to speak to Abdullah: he was in India.
I first came to know the music of Abdullah Ibrahim (earlier known as Dollar Brand) in an undergraduate seminar run by Christopher Ballantine, then a Marxist musicologist of rare vision and courage at the University of (KwaZulu) Natal in 1984. Ibrahim and his music were banned in South Africa at the time, along with that of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Sathima Bea Benjamin, and others. But we listened to some of their music in the early 1980s in Durban, South Africa, and read about many of its makers in that seminar. The learning was partial because there was scant recognition of women in South African or any other jazz history in that period. Looking back, I realize that the listening was also always comparative—everything South African was heard in relation to jazz generated in the United States. While the University Music Library held the long-playing (LP) records in its collection, we students were not permitted to listen to these supposedly dangerous sounds at will. Close accounting was kept of every track each student listened to. Officially, we were not permitted to make copies of the records. Unofficially, however, I recall obtaining duplicates of Abdullah's music and spending an entire weekend listening closely to the tapes. I read the short pieces written about his early life and specifically his conversion to Islam. Here was a South African whose music and spirituality were inextricably intertwined: he had found a way to make his Muslim belief work musically. This seemed an unusual position in the world of Islam. I emerged from that solitary weekend mesmerized by the music and creative output of a man I imagined would be impossible to ever meet in person. In retrospect, I realize that this is probably how Sathima felt about Duke Ellington when she first heard and fell in love with his music in Cape Town, never dreaming she would actually come to know him, let alone record with him.
In 1989, as a graduate student at New York University, I took a seminar with the jazz historian Lewis Porter, who required his students to visit the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, in order to construct discographies and biographies of jazz musicians. I selected three non-Americans, the South Africans I knew best: Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, and Miriam Makeba. Tied to Ibrahim's files were those of Sathima Bea Benjamin. I was aware that these two musicians were living in New York City, but I also remembered from my South African jazz seminar in 1984 that Ballantine had warned that they (or any people of color) would not talk with white South Africans. Longing for some kind of contact and hoping to gather more materials on these musicians without being intrusive, I found a telephone number in Sathima's files for Ekapa, the name of the independent record label she and Ibrahim established in the 1980s to distribute her recordings. I called the number. "Salaam," a deep, male voice responded. I am not sure who I thought would answer, but this was not the voice. "Is that Ekapa Records?" I asked nervously. Suddenly I realized that the voice on the other end was that of Ibrahim. Independent labels are often run from musicians' homes—how had I not made that connection earlier? He proceeded to interrogate me: suspicion characterized many of the encounters between South Africans across racial divides, even those abroad. At the end of the call, Ibrahim promised to call me back a few days later, which he did. Perhaps satisfied that I was not a South African government informer or a member of the CIA, we agreed to meet a week or so later in the Green Room after one of his performances at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.
Meeting Abdullah Ibrahim in person was an awesome moment—something I never really believed would happen, and it took place in the presence of many exiled South African musicians and theater people who also came to the Green Room to meet the pianist. I recall waiting right to the end and letting everyone else who seemed to know Ibrahim personally, greet him before me. After about an hour, I finally came face to face with the man whose music had so deeply moved me in South Africa several years before. It was close to 1 A.M. by then. I left Lincoln Center and ran back to catch the last train out of the city that evening amazed that I had finally come to meet Abdullah Ibrahim in person.
We could never have imagined it would be less than a year before we would gather again in such a radically transformed political moment. In stark contrast to the feeling of uncertainty and fear that had characterized my first conversations with Ibrahim by telephone in 1989, we embraced on the street outside Riverside Church in February 1990, unsure about the future as South Africans but holding onto the possibilities of freedom that had opened up with de Klerk's globally disseminated message earlier that day. Nine months after my seminar assignments were due Ibrahim agreed to talk. He suggested I call the following week.
Just before Sathima answered the phone when I called to speak to her husband she had spoken with someone from the ANC'S culture desk, and she was angry because it seemed as if those organizing the anti-apartheid events in exile had slighted her, again. They regularly invited Abdullah to represent the liberation struggle abroad, but she, they said, didn't sound "African enough," and she performed with American musicians. She insisted (and her story told here demonstrates) that she had paid her dues with the ANC, working and performing for them while she lived in exile in New York City. At first I thought her marginality in anti-apartheid musical events was linked to her musical style—she is so clearly a jazz singer, and jazz after all is American music. I have come to understand (as I explain in this book) that the exclusions might equally be about racial identities, about gender, and about the language she sings in: she is of mixed race, or what the apartheid regime classified as Cape Coloured, she is a woman singer, and she sings in English rather than in one of the more exotic-sounding African languages popularized internationally by Makeba.
Still holding the phone, I did some quick thinking. I was becoming more interested in the untold story of women musicians, and this was probably not a good moment to ask to speak to her husband. "Abdullah told me to call this week, but since he is away, I wonder if you would talk with me about your music?" I asked. "When?" she replied. "Whatever works for you," I said, stunned that she was so willing. We agreed on a time and a place. "You may not bring a tape recorder," she stressed. "You may not record this interview. You must ask me the questions, come with questions. Meet me at the Chelsea, and we can go together from there."
I spent the rest of the week scouring my files—these were pre–World Wide Web days—figuring out what I needed to know and what questions I wanted to ask. Early in March 1990 I went to the Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd Street with a list. Once we were seated in a neighborhood diner I asked my first question. There was scant need for further inquiry: Sathima Bea Benjamin had an extraordinary story to tell, and she was an artful narrator. After about ninety minutes of listening I stumbled out into the street, my head swimming with words and images: some exhilarating, others drenched in pain and struggle. We had agreed to meet again. Thankfully, from then on Sathima allowed me to bring a recording device!
Finding Common Ground
Both Sathima Bea Benjamin and I spent our childhoods in Cape Town, a port city that has profoundly shaped our sense of place in the world. Nestled between the Cape Fold Mountains and the Indian and Atlantic oceans, Cape Town since the mid-seventeenth century has become home to people from a wide range of perhaps unexpected places, including Indonesia, Sudan, Turkey, India, China, Russia, and Europe. All have come and intermingled with the Khoisan-and Xhosa-speaking peoples who traversed the mountains and coastline of the Cape.
Despite our common point of origin our engagement with Cape Town was fundamentally different. Sathima was born Beatrice Benjamin in 1936, twelve years before what became known as the apartheid government came to power. That was the year my parents were born. I was born in Cape Town in 1963, just shy of three years after the infamous Sharpeville massacre and a year after Sathima had left for Europe. The 1960s was the decade of what has become known as grand apartheid, in which the laws put in place from 1948 through the end of the 1950s were implemented. The Group Areas Act was the centerpiece of this era. The act legislated that all people of the same race or "tribe" or both were to live together in the same place, and those South Africans who were of the so-called wrong race or tribe were to be forcibly removed to the right places. It effectively denied citizenship in white South Africa to all people of color, requiring them to live in their own homelands, or Bantustans, unless they were employed in so-called white areas. A host of additional laws supported the basic idea of separate development, including the Mixed Marriages Act, the Immorality Act, the Color Bar Act, the Land Act, the Pass Laws, and the Separate Amenities Act. I was born into that world of grand apartheid.
While there are many places Sathima and I remember in common, racial difference fundamentally informed our knowledge and understanding of the world. Born white, I grew up in a working-class suburb called Mowbray in the period after those classified as Coloured had been moved from Mowbray to other parts of the city. Sathima's home, the one originally owned by her grandmother Ma Benjamin, was in a more respectable suburb, but it was on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, that is, the Coloured side. The Benjamin family lost their home under the Group Areas Act. A few years ago Sathima returned to Cape Town and went to find that home. She struggled to identify the exact house because, though she knew the road, when she was young the houses had been identified by name and now they were numbered. Since her family had been forced to sell the house and leave the area under Group Areas legislation the house had had a makeover. Their neighborhood had been "Chelseafied" and become a place for middle-class whites only.
Though we came to live in New York City for different reasons—I for graduate school, Sathima because that was where Duke Ellington had suggested she and Abdullah would be able to survive playing the kind of jazz they did—both of us carried vivid memories of and love for the sheer beauty of Cape Town, the Mother City. New York City is equally cherished for its sheer size, energy, and sense of possibility it gives to artists, intellectuals, and musicians. To Sathima New York is a vast urban space she has come to know and love because of the lived experiences she has etched upon its landscape. It is the "ultimate in freedom," she says. You can be as connected to or as distant as you want to be from the thousands of people walking in the streets each day. My own knowledge and love of New York is similarly marked by a profound sense of the freedom to be, but it has also been formed by the many conversations I have had with Sathima and the rare, remarkable performances I have witnessed featuring her and her trio over the years. When I taught at New York University, Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, and, more recently, at the University of Pennsylvania, Sathima has visited my classes. Over the years we have spent many hours in recorded and telephone conversations. We have both subsequently returned to South Africa on numerous occasions, each of us pulling out our very distant recollections of a bygone era, united in travel by our common love of jazz, particularly in its South African inflections.
When Sathima suggested to me in 1995 that we write a book together, I jumped at the idea. "Women writing culture" at last—a joint project on which we could work in partnership to write the book and fulfill the ideals expounded in the seminal text Writing Culture (1986), and the gendered response to that book, Women Writing Culture (1996) and their off- spring. Sathima could tell her story in the way she wanted to with the support of my research and publishing expertise. The idea seemed full of promise. Such a book, however, was not to be. Time, place, resources, family demands, and individual availability just never seemed to coincide to make it possible for Sathima and me to sit down together in the same room and write her story.
One should not despair, however, about the potential for collaborative scholarship between the scholar and the singer because in producing this book we have both had a hand in contributing to its content, in shaping it contours, and giving life to its story. Perhaps by default there has been a clear division of labor, each according to her realm of expertise. While I have done the usual scholarly things like record and transcribe interviews; read a vast corpus of primary materials and secondary literature on a wide array of subjects—from Islamic recitation through birthing narratives, cosmopolitanism, and forgiveness to race and historiography; write and present papers; talk to publishers; and produce this book, Sathima has done the talking, rehearsing, singing, recording, and packaging of her recordings. Several years ago she put me in touch with her family and friends in Cape Town and New York City. In 1996 Abdullah kindly drove me around Cape Town, from one home to the next in between calls to prayer, so I could interview her extended family from St. Helena and others who had known Sathima in her youth and early adult life. Sathima's sister Edie Green arranged all the interviews. I simply arrived to conduct them according to her program. The timing was fortuitous, as most of those I spoke with are no longer alive. I am forever indebted to Abdullah and Edie for their generosity and time.
Relative to other books, even those in the academic world, this one has been a long time in coming. Though my work with Sathima Bea Benjamin was my first major research project as a graduate student, I have completed three books on other materials in the interim principally because I have struggled to locate what the feminist philosopher Lorraine Code calls the appropriate "rhetorical space" for the kinds of material the research has generated (1995), a struggle often paralleled in Sathima's career as a musician in the world of jazz, and similar to my own as a scholar of this music. Since my move to the United States it has taken some time for me to find a scholarly voice that incorporates my own kind of diasporic living and experience into my writing and thinking about jazz.
Sathima has read and responded to everything I have written about her over the last twenty years. For the most part her responses have concerned factual corrections, and although I have pressed her to critique what I have written she has refrained from doing so. She has left the writing to me. When I completed a draft of three chapters of the book I mailed the work to Sathima in New York City in August 2006. About a week later she called and left a message on my cell phone. She told me she had taken the padded envelope and walked to the park close to the Hotel Chelsea, where she had sat alone and read the three chapters from start to finish. And she had wept. This woman who had her own catalog of recordings, was the founding director of her own record label, and a South African singer with Grammy recognition had been in tears because as she read she had been overcome by the material evidence, the written story of her life.
Excerpted from Musical Echoes by CAROL ANN MULLER SATHIMA BEA BENJAMIN Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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