sathima's windsong

Sathima's Windsong Trailer

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Sathima's Windsong is about the life and times of South African jazz singer, Sathima Bea Benjamin, whose musical creations were often in the shadow of her husband, jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim.

The film is shot primarily in New York, Cape Town but opens with short of the Island of St Helena, birthplace of Sathima's grandmother. It returns to the ocean to signal travel, 'routes' and jazz as metaphors for her life-history. In her apartment of the Chelsea Hotel Apartment, Sathima's home for more than thirty years, she patches together her journeys from apartheid South Africa and its 'patterns of brokenness' to Europe, and a chance meeting and a recording with Duke Ellington in Paris in 1963, to the highs and lows of making a life for herself and family in New York, where she continues to live.

The narrative of her journeys is interwoven with her music and the reflections of folks in South Africa and New York who know her work thus making this film both a celebration of Sathima's music as well as a reflection on the historical context that helped shape it. The film takes it title from Sathima's haunting composition, Windsong, which, like this film, is itself is a reflection upon displacement, exile, belonging and longing.

I first encountered Sathima Benjamin after her performance at what was then called the North Sea Jazz Festival, in Cape Town, 2001. I was, at that time, spending my sabbatical at the University of Cape Town and had started a research project on the St Helena-South African migrations and connections. In that encounter, Sathima mentioned that her father’s mother was from the Island of St Helena and that on her maternal side she had ‘roots’ in the Philippines. These ‘roots’ she claimed, explains her unusual voice: ‘it comes from far, far, far away.’ It was difficult for me to let go of the imaginary her sentiments echoed. Sathima agreed to my request for an interview, but it would have to wait because she was returning home to New York within the next couple of days. Once back in Toronto, I went to visit her at the Chelsea Hotel, in New York, and we had a long and engaged conversation in a nearby diner. Other meetings followed and the idea of a film on Sathima’s life and work began to take shape.  

I returned to New York to see Sathima perform at Sweet Rhythm in October 2003. She gave me permission to use my borrowed camcorder. The resultant one-hour footage was, by-and-large, poorly shot (my very first effort at using a camcorder!) but the moments of her performing Africa and Windsong respectively (subsequently used at the beginning and end of the film) provided more reason for taking seriously the idea of a film.   In 2008, as I was about to start a second sabbatical in Cape Town, I was faced with the feeling of ‘now or never’ for the film and I was all the time encouraged by my good friend Paul Lee who has been instrumental and forever encouraging in my film-making efforts. Antonin Lhotsky and Doug Campbell, who had respectively worked as director of photography and editor, on my earlier film, One Hundred Men, agreed to come onboard.  In June, Antonin and I went to begin the shoot in New York.

 

Doing the shoot.

Sathima’s Windsong was made on a low-to-no budget, which meant restraints on shoot times. The first shoot, in New York, entailed booking into the Chelsea Hotel for two nights. It included a three-hour interview with Sathima, in her apartment at the hotel, and shoots of her in and around this famous/infamous New York landmark.  Interviews were also done with Barbara Ainsley, a retired dancer and Sathima’s close friend of many years. Barbara provided valuable insights into the trans-Atlantic racial associations and dynamics that provided some of the glue for their friendship. Seaton Hawkins, who wrote on Sathima for his Master Degree, and who has since been instrumental in promoting her work, offered great insights specifically on the significance of Sathima’s ‘distinctly South African jazz’ for trans-Atlantic jazz sensibilities and the ‘identity trouble’ that accompany them. Carol Muller, Ethnomusicologist and Professor at the University of Philadelphia, who has written an important biographical work on Sathima, generously offered details and insights on the life and times of Sathima and her work.  I was thus able to go off to Cape Town with some great footage in-hand.

The Cape Town shoot took place two months later.  The primary goal was to capture something of the cityscape of Cape Town to weave together with that of New York in an attempt to engage the ‘time-space-place convergence’ as backdrop to Sathima’s narrative. Three great interviews with folks I’d gotten to know in Cape Town added much to the historical backdrop of her story: Joan, Sathima’s sister, took me to the house where she and Sathima were brought up by their grandmother –the house and the area were declared a ‘white area’ under apartheid, resulting in the family displacement. Vincent Kolby’s interview elaborated this history, and the place of jazz in it.  My good friend, Father Michael Weeder, then rector of St Philips, now Dean of St George’s Cathedral, spoke eloquently and with much insight on Sathima’s life and reflected upon the related and relevant themes of feminism, masculinity, jazz, creolization and more. Michael’s depth of knowledge was matched by passion and a kindness that he brings to his deliberation. Such, indeed, was the case for the others who took part in this project and feature in the film.

The editing –some themes and concerns.

Doug Campbell joined me in Cape Town a couple of months after Antonin’s return to Toronto. In Cape Town we embarked, intensively, on the editing.  Sidney Francis, leading IT technician at the university, was superbly helpful in transforming my office there into an editing suite where Doug went about deploying his brilliant editing skills and insight, spurred on my great veggie curries bought at a little stall on the other side of University Avenue. Doug is also a musician thus he was not only editor but he took on the musical arrangements for the film which was crucial given that this is a film about a jazz vocalist and her music.

It became obvious, from the time I started to get to know Sathima, that she had never received the recognition and status in South African jazz that she fully deserves. This sense was shared by several people who know and can talk about Sathima’s work. There are reasons for this (some are to in the film) sense of marginality not least the fact that her life was/is appeared to have been lived, somewhat, in the shadow of her husband, renowned musician Abdullah Ibrahim.  There are a number of ‘what if’ moments in the film such as when she talks about her recordings in Paris with Duke Ellington –‘what if. . .’ the recording had not gotten lost and ‘what if. . .’  Frank Sinatra had put them out?  One of the aims of the film, therefore, was to address the problem of recognition, or the lack thereof. But Sathima’s Windsong takes up other themes and concerns some of which have preoccupied my work over the years –concerns with what it means to be ‘diasporic’ and ‘cosmopolitan’; the question of displacement and belonging; concerns to do with citizenship, race and identity; memory, place and travel. Overt and explicit references to these themes are, of course, avoided, though some of the supporting characters in the film do bring them up.  In the film I aim to introduce and weave metaphors and ‘things to think with’ in thinking about these aforementioned themes of journeying and belonging. ‘Things to think with’ thus include the sea, which connects and separate diverse places. The expansive and the apparent lack of order and direction suggested by the seascapes contrast with the order (and disorder) of the cityscapes hinting at two very different ways of thinking about the pressing questions of identity. ‘Things to think with’ also include the renowned Caribbean poet, Kamu Braithwaite’s concept ‘tidalectics’- a way of thinking with the sea and a way of thinking about time as circular, a constant back-and-forth.  And, while the film is about the life of a jazz vocalist, jazz as a musical genre –with all its dissonance and harmony, improvisation and re-creation- also becomes ‘something to think with’ in thinking about what Sathima’s story might embody and represent.  As the film unfolds it is also another story about apartheid and the anti-apartheid struggles. However, it is not one that mirrors the grand narratives of apartheid and anti-apartheid but rather one that is written in margins of this narrative, that is, not one that is about mass oppression and mass protest but about an individual subaltern life that is deeply affected by the oppressive horrors of the system.  I try to avoid having the images ‘represent’ or ‘illustrate’ the unfolding narratives in the film, opting, instead, for a sense of the images ‘evoking’ rather than ‘representing’ and at times serving as visual commentary on the unfolding story.

The evening before Doug left Cape Town to return to Toronto, we watched our first-cut of the film with four of my good friends, Shaun Viljoen, Susan Levine, Patricia Hayse and Ciraj Rasool. Their collective and individual responses were positive and encouraging.  Doug and I next watched it with Antonin when I returned to Toronto at the end of my sabbatical. Antonin deemed it ‘boring’ and indeed, with respect to the first twenty minutes of this cut, I agreed with him!  The film needed more. A second interview was thus arranged with Sathima in the winter of 2009. The walk in the winter to, and around, her now-closed ‘musical home,’ Sweet Rhythm, was also done in this second trip to New York.  The second-cut significantly changed much of the introduction to and the first fifteen minutes of the original cut. The third-cut, which became the final version, was more-or-less simply a tweaking of the second -and so it was that the goal of timely completion of the project was achieved.

The working title for the film was simply ‘For Sathima.’  But the use of Sathima’s rendering of her beautiful composition, Windsong, in the film led naturally to the revised title. There is a haunting beauty to this song. It is probably my most favourite of all her recordings. The base and rhythm that underscores the song is used at the very start of the film –over the sea washing up on a little black-sand beach on St Helena followed by a ‘washing up’ on the white-sand beach in Cape Town and then a view of Manhattan from the sea.  Sathima’s rendering of the song returns as the climax to the film over images of her performing it at the Sweet Rhythm in 2003. Sathima hints at ‘the wind that blows there [in Cape Town] and her sense of ‘aloneness’, to use her own words, as part of the inspiration for writing the song. Her sentiments capture some of the themes of the film, especially a sense of being simultaneously attached to, and detached from, ‘home’ –instances of the estrangement that marks a cosmopolitan way of being in the world.

I am greatly indebted to the many folks who helped me to realize the making of Sathima’s Windsong. The names of these good folks appear in the credits at the end of the film, and there is always the risk of some being inadvertently left out.  Antonin’s generosity and camera-work was, again, brilliant and Doug brought his characteristic care, inventiveness and imagination to the editing –treating this one again as if it was his own baby.  I resist the temptation to elaborate on the generosity of so many others mentioned in the credits, but I make an exception for my friend Shaun Viljoen who not only gave insight and advice but graciously opened up his house to myself and also to Antonin and Doug for the time they were in Cape Town.  However, most of all, my greatest debt is owed to Sathima for her her friendship and the trust she invested in me.  I came to admire and value Satima’s quirkiness and passion and her wonderfully generous spirit. I watched the film on my laptop with her at the Chelsea Hotel, before sending it off for a film festival in Cape Town and I was very touched by her response. Sathima Bea Benjamin is a hugely accomplished artist. Her music is beautiful and its contribution to South African and trans-Atlantic jazz is significant. I intend Sathima’s Windsong to be a celebration of her work and life and I hope that the film will help promote the recognition Sathima rightly deserves.

Selected Screenings

Pre-View of Sathima's Windsong

Event date: 
Fri, 2011-03-25 00:00 - 13:13
Event Type: 
Film screening
Location: 
Nat Taylor Cinema, York University North York, ON
Canada

an opportunity to 'try out' the film with students,  faculty and friends.

Encounters: International Documentary Film Festival, Cape Town

Event date: 
Sun, 2010-08-15 (All day)
Event Type: 
Film screening
Location: 
Water Front Cape Town, WC
South Africa

This was the World Premiere.  Sathima's Windsong was the 'runner up' for the Audience Award.  See www.encounters.co.za

Seminar Screening

Event date: 
Tue, 2011-06-14 00:00 - Mon, 2011-07-11 00:00
Event Type: 
Film screening
Location: 
University of Western Cape Cape Town
South Africa

A very lively and engaged audience at the Centre for the Study of the Humanities in Africa.

St Helena Premiere

Event date: 
Wed, 2011-05-11 00:00 - Mon, 2011-07-11 18:15
Event Type: 
Film screening
Location: 
Consulate Hotel
Main Street, Jamestown
Saint Helena

Screening organized by the National Trust. Weak publicity = modest turn-out.