Long Read | Sibongile Khumalo, teacher and icon

Matriarch of the arts and mentor to young musicians, the multi-talented singer’s profound musical and artistic contribution is remembered by those whose lives she touched.

Sibongile Khumalo, the virtuoso singer who died on 28 January 2021 at 63, has a rich and varied legacy. She is widely acknowledged for her contribution to music as an artist who innovated beyond genres. The tributes that have poured in after her death reveal her widespread influence as a cultural worker, teacher and mentor. Speaking to those who have encountered her over the years, a beautifully layered portrait of her contribution to the arts emerges.

Born into a prominent music family – her father, Khabi Mngoma, was a legendary music scholar and former professor of music at the University of Zululand – Khumalo studied music and then worked as a music teacher and cultural worker, first at university level and later at places such as the Federated Union of Black Artists (Fuba) Academy in Newtown and the Madimba Institute of African Music at the Funda Centre in Diepkloof, Soweto. Over the years, she paid tribute and respect to the South African songbook – including to Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu’s musical heritage. 

A philosophy on South African art emerged through her work. In an interview with ZB Molefe, Khumalo argued for a vanguard that nurtured Black musical talent in South Africa to prevent gifted musicians from “disappearing into factories and becoming computer operators or clerks”.

The interview, which took place at the Funda Centre where Khumalo taught for many years, captures Khumalo at a pivotal moment in her career. In 1993, she was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, which set her on the path for success. Speaking about conservative, Western models of music education in particular, she said: “I would say non-music education is a better option. The music option available at tertiary level [in our country] is an extension of the Eurocentric music model.”

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Her belief in teaching expressed her commitment to “challenging young minds to think beyond what they believe is possible,” as she said in 2012. “One of the things I learned was that fear is a very debilitating energy, and so unless you have somebody who can help you think past your fear, you can get very stifled. When you have a guide or a mentor who helps you see the possibilities in your life and helps you think beyond what you believe, it helps,” Khumalo said.

Aside from her mentorship and administrative roles, Khumalo was the first Black woman to be appointed chairman of the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (Samro), paving the way for other Black women to join the board. Of Khumalo, close friend and former Samro colleague Andre le Roux says, “For me she was a matriarch of the arts.” She gave those who followed after her “access”, nurturing them until they were ready to follow their own path. 

Khumalo’s legacy resounds in the experiences of many who encountered her. Her dedicated labour as a teacher and cultural worker echoed in all spheres of her life, especially during performances. Here she is remembered by those who shared stages and spaces with her.

Tutu Puoane

Musician and vocalist based in Antwerp, Belgium

When vocalist Tutu Puoane first listened to Khumalo’s 1996 album Ancient Evenings, she had “never heard anything like it from a South African artist before”. It touched her to the core. “I completely fell in love with her right away,” she says. 

Puoane remembers listening to an interview on Radio Bop. “I called in and … I was able to tell her how amazing I thought she was. In that interview she spoke about teaching at Funda. I got it confused with Fuba, so I enrolled there thinking I would find her, sadly realising … I had enrolled at the wrong school.”

But this would not be her only chance to encounter the icon. Puoane went on to meet and perform with Khumalo several times. The first time they shared the stage was for a show called Moya wa Sechaba in Cape Town in 2000. 

“That was such a beautiful show,” Puoane recalls. “She insisted that I get a solo feature, as well as a spot in the show where I could scat/improvise because she thought I was a good improviser. She had this way of spotting what you were good at and giving you the chance to shine at that particular thing.”

Puoane would follow in Khumalo’s footsteps, receiving the Standard Bank Young Artist award in 2004. 

November 2018: From left, Sibongile Khumalo was an inspiration to vocalist Tutu Puoane, who considered her a friend, pictured here during the London Jazz Festival. (Phone image supplied by Tutu Puoane)

“The [award] recipients were given a chance to work together. I suggested that all the [Young Artist award winning] vocalists … work together: me, Melanie Scholtz, sis’Gloria Bosman and mme wa Tshepo – I could never address her by her name. To me she’ll remain mme wa Tshepo. (In our culture you address a mother by the name of their first-born child.) Working with her was pure joy,” Puoane says. “There was much laughter when she was around but when it came time to work, her genius never ceased to amaze me.”

She recalls that standout 2014 performance: “There was a certain moment where madlozi [spirits] were on stage within her. I was standing right beside her, and there was certainly a moment when something took hold of her. She was singing, almost growling from her gut. I moved further away from her to give her space because I really felt this invisible wall [or] energy around her. Her eyes were closed … When she opened them and looked at us, I felt this chill down my spine.” 

Puoane considered Khumalo a mentor, but not in the traditional sense. “Mme wa Tshepo was old enough to be my mother and yet her spirit was so young that she was also my friend. She could jokingly embarrass me about my lack of make-up, while advising me about the importance of putting on make-up for stage.”

Khumalo “proved that music has no boundaries. That a classically trained singer/musician can fuse their knowledge with any other genre and create a sound so completely special and unique,” Puoane says. “We’ve lost someone truly special. My heart goes out to all her musical children, to all of us, the entire South African music scene and all her fans.”

Melanie Scholtz

Singer and composer based in New York

Melanie Scholtz was “completely blown away” when she heard Khumalo sing while studying opera at the University of Cape Town. “I remember thinking what an incredibly special voice.” Some years later while making the transition into jazz Scholtz discovered Khumalo’s Live at the Market Theatre, a jazz-infused album. “Once again, I was extremely inspired as I felt like there was someone doing what I would love to do. She made this possible. She was the bridge between these two worlds in South Africa. I looked up to her.”

She remembers Khumalo as being “an incredibly grounded person with a very down-to-earth demeanour”. “I always remember her being very calm and also always very straightforward and honest. Definitely a maternal figure to everyone she worked with,” she says.

26 September 2019: The Standard Bank Young Artist All Star band at the 2019 Joy of Jazz festival included, from left, winners Sibongile Khumalo, Gloria Bosman, Melanie Scholtz and Shannon Mowday. (Photograph by Siphiwe Mhlambi)

Scholtz was the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist award in 2010 and performed with Khumalo at several festivals. She echoes Puoane’s memory of their 2014 performance together: “During our performance the spirit took her and we were witness to her spiritual side. It was extremely powerful and special. I don’t think anyone on and off stage would ever forget that moment.”

Scholtz says, “Mam’Sibongile’s legacy is one of true artistry and courage. She was and will always be a trailblazer for all women of colour in opera and other music genres. She brought not only different genres of music together, [but] also … different kinds of musicians together – that was her gift. [She was] our undisputed first lady of song in South Africa, bringing joy and healing through music.”

Tony Lankester

Executive director of Riverside Studios in London and the former chief executive of the National Arts Festival

Tony Lankester first met Khumalo on the panel that interviewed him for the festival chief executive position. It was “pretty intimidating having such an iconic presence across the table from you in that kind of situation,” he recalls, adding that “she was gracious, kind and twinkly throughout … which pretty much sums up my experience of her in the ensuing years”.

Lankester says Khumalo was always very supportive of those with whom she worked. He describes the mentoring role she took in her performance as guest artist at the festival’s Masicule – Let’s Sing! concert in 2018, which featured roughly 800 school children backing her on stage.

 “The final rehearsal was long and arduous – and Sibongile was well aware of the nerves of those around her, sharing the stage with her, from conductors [and the] band to choir members. She was patient and kind throughout, explaining exactly what she wanted and why she wanted it done that way… [She] never had to raise her voice, cajoling people along with diplomacy and a firm and clear hand … Her artistic leadership and vision was crystal clear. She knew everyone would get there, and she calmly set about taking everyone on the journey.”

13 August 2016: In her role as arts organiser, Sibongile Khumalo was the first Black woman to be appointed as the chairperson of the Southern African Music Rights Organisation, paving the way for others. (Photograph by Siphiwe Mhlambi)

Khumalo felt compassion for the plight of artists. “In every board discussion, she used to bring a deep sensitivity to the conversation, constantly reminding us that we weren’t acting for ourselves, but for [the] hundreds and thousands of artists for whom we worked. She never lost sight of that, and her unspoken – but acutely felt – mission was to be the voice at the table for artists who were at risk of being left behind. She also knew her power and influence but, like all good leaders, she used it sparingly and never wielded it as a weapon,” Lankester says.

On the artistic committee Khumalo was a gentle but commanding presence. “She had absolute authority in those situations – a very calm but forceful and principled leader. She realised that consensus-building was important, but also that everyone needed to feel heard and listened to. As I read recently, she didn’t suffer fools … She would always let people speak, but if she disagreed with them, she wouldn’t shirk from making her position clear: not by banging the table and lecturing, but more often through a raised eyebrow, a slightly prolonged moment of eye contact, a head gesture. That’s all it took.”

Kay Mosiane

Singer and music teacher at Stirling High School, East London

Vocalist and music teacher Kay Mosiane first met Khumalo at the same 2018 Masicule – Let’s Sing! concert, where Mosiane unexpectedly got to sing in front of her idol while standing in for her at a rehearsal.

She was introduced to Khumalo’s music through her parents, who both loved opera. “I must have started listening to her when I was a toddler. I fell in love with her voice because it was so different in texture to any other singer than I’ve heard, and something in how she sang resonated with me quite deeply. Her music was basically the soundtrack to my life.”

While growing up, Mosiane saw Khumalo as a kind of mentor from afar, but became completely captivated by her when she started training classically as a singer. “My teacher at the time was writing her masters on uMam’Sibongile and her technique of switching between classical and jazz, which is something I was very interested in. So my obsession with her grew to look deeply at her technique. I viewed her as someone I was studying in very great detail as a teacher and vocal coach.”

Undated: From left, vocalist and teacher Kay Mosiane met her idol Sibongile Khumalo during the performance of Masicule – Let’s Sing! at the National Arts Festival in 2018. (Phone image supplied by Kay Mosiane)

Over those few days, Mosiane got to watch Khumalo sing live and ask her questions. “She gave advice based on what she knew and had been through … to hear it from your idol was so gratifying and reassuring, especially when you are in your 20s. That is something I’ve taken as a teacher … I’ve made a conscious effort to continue to perform, because you learn from those experiences. And to teach from what I know is so much easier than to teach from what I studied.

“What struck me was how exceptionally she spoke to every single person as though she’d known us for 20 years … She was also interested in me as a person. She said, ‘Musicians don’t just appear in this world as a lump of clay and then you become a musician. You’re a person first and then you become whatever it is you set out to be, which will mould and shape your craft.’ So she wanted to know me first, before even getting to the music.”

Mosiane adds, “She exceeded all expectations … just how kind and loving and warm and genuine she was. I will remember many music lessons from her, but I will never forget how she made me feel, which is like her friend.”

Ismail Mahomed

Director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

Playwright and arts administrator Ismail Mahomed was artistic director for the National Arts Festival. Along with Khumalo, who was the chairperson of the artistic committee, he and others chose the recipients of the Standard Bank Young Artist awards. As an award winner herself, Khumalo recognised the role it played in propelling her career.

Mohamed says that she was a strong ambassador for the programme. “She understood the value of giving young people opportunities and recognition to catapult their careers. She comes from the generation of people who got the young artist award in the early days, who saw it as crucial, not just to become famous but to use that fame … to open doors for other people.”

As he shares his memories, he echoes a sentiment to which many have alluded: “The other role she played on the board was being a matriarch figure that everyone looked up to. When she spoke, she spoke with great depth. So, before she really got to the point that she wanted to drive home, she would take you through a narrative, like a grandmother takes a child on her lap and tells a story, and then gives you the moral of a story.

Undated: Former artistic director of the National Arts Festival Ismail Mahomed describes Sibongile Khumalo as someone who aimed to democratise the arts space. (Phone image supplied by Ismail Mohamed)

“But I think her greatest strength was as much as she was royalty in the arts sector, she was equally as comfortable with young people. She’s always been incredibly passionate about wanting to democratise the art space, to make it accessible and to make it relevant.” 

Mahomed says her activism was subtle. “[It was] about dialogue and about persuading people to believe in their options. It was a quiet kind of activism. That’s the reason so many people warmed up to her.”

Mahomed recalls a moment that exemplifies this: “My last engagement with her, in her role as an activist, was on 17 October 2016, in the midst of the Fees Must Fall Movement, where there was the brutal attack on Wits University students on campus by police forces. She called me and said, ‘Can we have a prayer meeting at the Market Theatre for young people?’ And we convened a prayer circle outside Kippies venue, in which she shed a tear or two as she asked for calm and rationality, for engagement. I think that particular day came out of the enormous amount of fear that we don’t want to repeat the violence [of] the past.”

Siya Makuzeni

Trombone player and vocalist based in Johannesburg

Trombonist and vocalist Siya Makuzeni’s first introduction to Khumalo’s music was through the album Live at the Market Theatre. “It quickly became a favourite and staple of my South African jazz collection of music that I was immersing myself in at that time.” It was part of what inspired her to further her career in music. Following in the footsteps of Khumalo, Puoane and Schotlz, she was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist award in 2016. 

Her first meeting with Khumalo was when she was asked to perform in a showcase at Kyalami Theatre On The Track in 2007. “It was special because she booked me for a solo feature and we also got to do a short collaboration during my performance – there was a great improv section between us and Tshepo Mngoma on violin.” Makuzeni subsequently played with Khumalo many times and remembers her being “very approachable, full of humour and [someone who] always made everyone around her feel comfortable”.

Makuzeni says, “My best memory has to be when we performed at The Orbit for my Vocal Legacy project – to be able to share the stage with her and pay homage to the legacy of South African jazz vocals is a career highlight. And she was so poised, so giving of herself and her craft.”

13 August 2016: Sibongile Khumalo performed for Siya Makuzeni’s Vocal Legacy project at The Orbit in 2016. (Photograph by Siphiwe Mhlambi)
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