- Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz by Carol Ann Muller and Sathima Bea Benjamin
Musical Echoes begins with an evocative reading of an image: the album cover of South African jazz vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin’s European studio sessions with Duke Ellington, A Morning in Paris (1997). The photograph captures a moment of diasporic intimacy, an encounter between a young woman and a jazz patriarch, articulating Africa, Europe, and America within a mid-century Afro-modernity. Seen from the present, the image is also a sign of remembrance, restoration, and renaissance. While the album cover communicates Black Atlantic conjuncture, frozen in time, the sounds resonate historical disjuncture. The recording—released in 1997, though made in 1963—signals significant lacunae in Benjamin’s biography: the path that led her to jazz and to Europe in the 1960s and the path that, subsequently, brought Benjamin and her music to New York City, where A Morning in Paris was launched at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1997.
It is this story of personal and musical development; of movement, migration, and exile; of sonic and social artifacts scattered over seven decades and across three continents that ethnomusicologist Carol Ann Muller traces in Musical Echoes, filling in the gaps in dialogue with Sathima Bea Benjamin (who is credited as a coauthor). Throughout, Muller offers brilliant analytic counterpoints to Benjamin’s life history, complicating conceptions of race, lineage, diaspora, subjectivity, and memory as the book unfolds in an elegant antiphony of history and theory. As such, this book is much more than a scholarly biography or a musical memoir. At the interface of academic inquiry and personal recollection, Musical Echoes is a social and musical history of place and personhood embedded in the racial experiences of the Cape coloured community, extended through narratives of dispersion and displacement, embellished with the aural vitality of twentieth-century jazz, and elaborated over the course of a lifetime—that of an individual, Benjamin, and an era, apartheid.
Emphasizing this historically layered and resonant sense of place, the book opens with the particular cosmopolitanism and soundscape of the coloured quarters of Cape Town in the mid-twentieth century. There, a segregated and provincial social life coincides with an eclectic and transnational music culture to shape the worldview of a young woman of mixed racial descent, for whom the constraints of home do not preclude a global imagination. In a city where social mobility is highly circumscribed, physically and professionally, by race, the sounds of Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday—broadcast on the radio or amplified on a turntable—untether the racial signifier, letting it float, if fleetingly, with pleasure and pride. In this transient semiotic space, a Cape Town jazz scene emerges. As it does, Benjamin’s personal and professional life becomes entangled with avant-garde pianist Adolph “Dollar” Brand (later, Abdullah Ibrahim). As Brand and Benjamin’s relationship matures (in fits and starts), the brutality of white minority rule worsens, compelling the couple into exile. They travel first to Europe, where [End Page 201] Brand’s musical successes overshadow Benjamin’s vocal talents, then to New York, where, in time, Benjamin cultivates a complex—and largely successful—life of motherhood, entrepreneurship, musicianship, and anti-apartheid social activism. The story of this magnificent South African artist is, by itself, worth the price of admission. To this, Muller adds a rich (and largely unexplored) archive of jazz history and a host of useful theoretical tools, which, presented with stylistic grace and a spirit of ethnographic empathy, will likely make Musical Echoes a landmark in contemporary music scholarship and the contemporary Black Atlantic.