The many faces of Sibongile Khumalo

The musical icon believed a decolonised, feminist approach to African music is the only way to secure not only an accurate record of our past, but an open road to our future.

Much will be written about the music career of Sibongile Khumalo and many will elide her achievements into the single, limited category of “singer”. Singer she was, no doubt, and a magnificent one, with a voice that melded honey, smoke and crystalline waters into a cascade of captivating sound. She resisted, throughout her career, the genre envelopes into which critics tried to stuff her. She did not set out to be an “opera singer” or a “jazz singer” and did not appreciate media coverage that tried to confine her within one of those boxes and assess her work based on its parameters.

Khumalo was a musician who had far more than the Three Faces of one of her best loved shows.

Her stated mission was to develop – through the programmes she developed, her arrangements and her interpretations in performance – an authentic South African vocal concert repertoire that spanned the amahubo of Princess Magogo through 1950s pop hits such as Into Yam’ to modern jazz classics such as Moses Molelekwa’s Mountain Shade, and even Weekend Special. Her career earned more than a dozen awards, national and musical, and produced seven albums as leader including the South African Music Award-winning Quest (2002), plus countless collaborations.

But she was much more too.

25 September 2007: Sibongile Khumalo in Melville, Johannesburg, a few days after her 50th birthday. (Photograph supplied)

More than a singer

As a scholar, she researched the history of her own first teacher, vaudevillian and pianist Emily Motsieloa. As an all-round music industry professional, she perfected the production skills that supported her label, Magnolia Vision Records. She was music director for several stage productions. As an educator – as well as mentoring countless individuals – she was involved in nurturing the Khongisa Academy for Performing Arts, which had been founded by her father, composer and teacher Khabi Mngoma in KwaDlangezwa in KwaZulu-Natal. 

She was a respected teacher, too, heading the Madimba Institute of African Music at Soweto’s Funda Centre, and teaching at the Federated Union of Black Artists Academy. In those roles, she was a pioneer of decolonising the music curriculum, not by rejecting European music traditions, but by contextualising them and foregrounding the music education historically embedded in African societies.“The music education available [here] at tertiary level is an extension of the Eurocentric model … In our culture, we also have music education,” she told journalist Mike Mzileni.

3 July 2017: ‘There is an intimacy of motherhood that Sibongile and Ayanda shared … leaving those observing it guessing what the inside jokes … were,’ says the creator of this image of Khumalo and her daughter. (Photograph by Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi)

As an activist, Khumalo played an important role in musicians’ organisations and task teams in the immediate pre- and post-liberation period, asserting the role of grassroots artists and their communities’ needs, not globalised commercial imperatives, in shaping the nation’s future cultural policy. And as a human being, she was always there for any young artist seeking counselling, support and advice. Though extended ill health kept her off the stage in recent years, her spirit and achievements continued to be cited as an inspiration by new generations of young vocal artists, and especially young women. Through the foundations she laid, that will continue to be so, even though she has died.

In reflecting on this rich legacy, not everything that matters is easily accessible. In fact, much that matters about South Africa’s cultural creativity isn’t. So here, from my interviews with her for The Star Tonight and the Weekender – which are unavailable online and undigitised – is the voice of Sibongile Khumalo.

Building and decolonising

On decolonising minds: “I remember being on a plane and stopping over in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some Congolese army officers boarded and kept trying to chat me up in French. I lost patience: come on, speak English! And then they cracked up because I didn’t speak French. It struck me what great products we all were of our former colonial masters.” 

On arts festivals: “There’s a danger in festivals being all things to all people. The festival market has grown enormously; for elite festival goers world travel has opened up too. So for us to be talking about ‘world class’ [festivals] to mean merely copying international models or importing performers may not be sensible. ‘World class’ suggests a need to be validated by what’s over there – whether or not it validates our goals.”

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On the need to build new indigenous repertoires: “We need to reach a point where to be recognised as a jazz singer in this country, certain songs beyond Ntyilo Ntyilo and Lakutshon’Ilanga need to be in your repertoire. Songs like Gloria Bosman’s Sombawo, Judith Sephuma’s A Cry, A Smile, A Dance, Victor Ntoni’s Thetha. That isn’t ‘doing covers’ – this isn’t pop music – these are standards: part of our musical heritage.”

“We have wonderful standards in our repertoire, in every genre. We need to recognise them, rework them and use them as the foundation for new original compositions. Only when we reach that point will ‘African renaissance’ in music become more than a slogan.”

On working with drum legend Jack deJohnette in the band Intercontinental: “I had to think like an instrumentalist and take a journey inside the music … I did a lot of what I call ‘the duck thing’: above the water you’re sailing along serenely; under the water you’re paddling furiously to stay afloat … [But] six numbers for that show, completely free choice, all of us suggesting and deciding – and three of them end up from South Africa! How affirming is that?”

On waking up to African music: “[At the Funda Centre] we did a project called Melodi: Sounds of Home. That was a defining moment. Oddly, given my father’s background in the study of Zulu music, I found myself drawn to the complexities of Pedi sounds.”

3 July 2017: Sibongile Khumalo captured in playful, contemplative profile. (Photograph by Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi)

On singing Princess Magogo’s amahubo in the song cycle Haya Mtwan’Omkulu: I’m the child of an archivist, remember? … I grew up with that music and when I was very young I even heard [her] live at Kwa Phindangeni. But I grew up in Soweto, a typical city girl and that influence and inspiration faded … Yet as I came to do more concerts and recitals, I realised that while I was singing these gorgeous German lieder, French chansons and so on, there was nothing in the repertoire from here.

“As an opera-trained singer – where you need a big, projected sound – I have to work out how to handle melodies which taper off. I need to project them without making them sound ‘sung’ in the operatic sense. It’s a compromise – no, a marriage – between [Magogo’s] musical spirit and the modern musical aesthetic. You find you need to go beyond the rigid boundaries of the bar lines.”

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On women as heroes in African history: “The tremendous creativity of [Princess Magogo kaDinizulu] herself is evident. [Her] songs aren’t mere repetitions of older songs; they are her creations: full of enormous passion and lyricism and the praise singer’s intelligent commentary on the society around her.

“The tendency of history is to make prominent women seem like exceptions. The war leader Mkabayi is another example. We hide the women’s part in decision making. And that leads to us minimising the importance of what our mothers and grandmothers used to do even in the home.” 

Hamba kahle [go well], mother of song.

This is an edited version of two articles that first appeared on Gwen Ansell’s blog. The original articles are available here and here.

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