Two decades of song

2012-04-20 11:41

South Africa’s empress of song Sibongile Khumalo is celebrating 20 years of music. Percy Mabandu chats to her about her life’s work and more

It takes Sibongile Khumalo a few moments to turn and notice me when I arrive for our chat at the plush Fire and Ice hotel in Melrose Arch, Joburg. She’s hunched over a bowl of salad, which she washes down with honey-sweetened tea.

The restaurant’s high-backed chairs give her a look of royalty perched on a throne. A golden shaft of light from the setting sun catches her to make the whole sight surreal. It takes a few pleasantries and chuckles for us to find our rapport.

We take a trip down memory lane of the pivotal moments in her sparkling 20-year career as a professional musician and vocalist. The 54-year-old celebrates this milestone with a pair of concerts at the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City, Joburg.

Gazing into the middle distance, she remembers: “You know it only clicked towards the end of last year that this 2012 that people speak of is actually my 20-year mark as a fulltime singer.”

The journey started, she says, around the end of March and beginning of April 1992 at Kippies jazz club in Newtown, Joburg, where she did a series of shows titled The Three Faces of Sibongile Khumalo. The shows both launched her into the music industry and unified her multiple musical interests.

Here was a classically trained singer – who occasionally takes roles in operas – who combined her exposure to traditional music with her strong affinity with jazz, which defines the larger part of her body of work and has earned her multiple awards. These started with the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music in 1993.

Since that fateful leap into music, she has released a string of stellar albums, among them Ancient Evenings in 1996, which won two South African Music Awards (Sama) – best female vocal performance and best adult contemporary performance – and Live at The Market Theatre in 1998, which won a best adult contemporary performance Sama.

Sibongile Khumalo Live in 2009 was recorded at her 50th birthday celebration performances two years earlier.

She also released a self-titled album in 2006, a result of her role in Princess Magogo kaDinizulu, one of Africa’s first operas, which was staged at the Playhouse in Durban. The album includes some classics from African choral music.

But her involvement as an artist in community activism goes way back. In 1982, a younger Khumalo participated in the seminal Culture and Resistance conference in Botswana. It was a gathering of South African artists involved in the freedom struggle and included exiled creatives and those working from inside the country during the dark years.

 Esteemed activists such as Wally Serote, Abdullah Ibrahim, Albie Sachs, Keorapetse Kgositsile and Mohlabane Mashiangoako attended.

Khumalo becomes passionate when she talks about that gathering. “It gave us context. We came back with a greater sense of purpose about our role as artists.”

She adds: “Now we don’t have a vision, not just in the arts but as a country. We don’t know where we’re going.”
She emphasises that back then “there was a lot of regard for each others’ dignity. Even if we disagreed, because there were people from the Black Consciousness Movement, UDF, PAC and the ANC and so on, you never felt maligned and marginalised. We held different views but we left the room still feeling respected by our comrades.”

Khumalo also worked as an educator before turning exclusively to music. She started as a junior lecturer at the University of Zululand where her father, the late Professor Khabi Mngoma, once taught.

She joined the music department at Soweto’s Fuba (Federated Union of Black Artists) in 1983. About her time at Fuba, Khumalo remembers the support she received from Sophie Mgcina, the late singer and cultural activist.

“She was a mentor and I always called her my surrogate mother. She protected me. She always pushed me into positions and situations because she wanted me to grow.”

In fact, when Khumalo spoke at the culture and resistance conference, she spoke in the place of Mgcina, who couldn’t attend.

And, like many other artists, Khumalo was at one point caught up in a dead-end administration job. After taking a one-year higher diploma in personnel management in 1984, she worked as a personnel consultant, but quickly jumped back into the arts as a researcher at Funda centre in 1986.

She has been kept busy lately by her father’ 90th birthday commemorations. As part of the tributes, Khumalo is doing a university tour later in the year.

“It was meant to be my own celebration of my dad as my first teacher, mentor and musical influence. Then word got out and proposals started coming in. Part of it is that Wits is also celebrating 90 years in existence.”

So, after discussions with academics like Professor Tawana Kupe and others at Wits, where Mngoma taught, the university has elected to launch the Annual Khabi Mngoma Memorial Lecture.

The inaugural instalment will be presented by Dr Reuel Khoza, chairperson of Nedbank, at the fifth Wits Arts and Literature Experience from May 9 to 12.

Khumalo’s show Reflect. Live. Celebrate. will be at the Guy Butler Theatre on July 6 as part of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

» Khumalo celebrates her career with shows on Friday and Saturday at The Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City. Book at Computicket

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