Sathima Bea Benjamin, 76; jazz singer and activist

NEW YORK — Sathima Bea Benjamin, who as an internationally recognized jazz singer became both an ambassador for her South African homeland and an apartheid opponent, died Aug. 20 at her home in Cape Town. She was 76.

Like her husband of many years, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, Ms. Benjamin became well known only after leaving South Africa. The two moved to Europe in 1962, shaken by events like the Sharpeville massacre two years earlier. Later they declared their support for the African National Congress, living in exile in New York and raising money and awareness for the antiapartheid cause.

During a career of more than 50 years, Ms. Benjamin upheld a style of elegant composure and deliberative understatement, singing in a honeyed, smoky mezzo-soprano. She occasionally undergirded her music with the carnival-influenced shuffle beat known as Cape Town rhythm. But even at buoyant tempos she favored an unhurried, elastic, balladlike delivery, drawing out lyrics and often scooping up to a note.


Beatrice Bertha Benjamin was born in Johannesburg. Her parents divorced when she was a young child, and she was raised by her paternal grandmother, known as Ma Benjamin, in a suburb of Cape Town.

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She began singing in nightclubs as a teenager and met Ibrahim, then known as Dollar Brand, in her 20s. They began working together, recording her unreleased first album, “My Songs for You,” in 1959.

In 1963, not long after the couple had settled in Zurich, Ms. Benjamin attended a concert by the Duke Ellington Orchestra and implored Ellington to hear the Dollar Brand Trio at a club. Impressed by what he had heard, Ellington arranged to record the group in Paris. He did the same for Ms. Benjamin, producing both albums himself for Reprise.

“Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio” was soon released, but the label shelved Ms. Benjamin’s album, “A Morning in Paris.” She did, however, reap the benefit of Ellington’s imprimatur when she appeared with his orchestra at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival.

Ms. Benjamin and Ibrahim were married in 1965. When they converted to Islam three years later, he changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim (he was born Adolph Brand), and she adopted the name Sathima Ibrahim, using Sathima Bea Benjamin professionally.


They had a son, Tsakwe, now a pianist in Cape Town, and a daughter, Tsidi, now the underground rapper known as Jean Grae. Both survive her, as do her two sisters, Edith Green and Joan Franciscus.