Dame Sibongile in a retrospective mood

Kaldi’s coffee shop in Newtown, Johannesburg, is full of people trying not to notice that a national treasure is sitting among them. That’s until Sibongile Khumalo is spotted by an old friend who rushes up, embraces her and exclaims loudly: “Oh my, you smell like a Cape Town tulip!” They both roar with laughter.

Khumalo has reason to feel good. Her latest album, Sibongile Khumalo Live (Gallo), has just hit record stores. Inspired by her 50th birthday back in 2007, the 13-track CD salutes her past influences as much as it embraces new creative possibilities.

“I thought: I’m going to indulge myself and also celebrate the people who’ve influenced me,” she says, stirring honey into her rooibos tea.

The new CD pays homage to South Africa’s greatest musical icons, such as Letta Mbulu, Thandi Klaasen and Sophie Mgcina. But Khumalo pays special tribute to Allen Kwela’s songbook. She credits the late jazz guitarist and composer for “affirming” her as a singer and describes Kwela as “one of those talents that South Africa failed to appreciate”.

The two met when they were working at the Federated Union of Black Arts (Fuba). “I had just come out of university, with training in classical music,” Khumalo says. “He helped me find my confidence.” She says that her recordings from that time betray this search for self-identity.

But her new CD is more than a nostalgic road trip. It’s also a way to showcase young talent, such as Cape Town-based saxophonist Shannon Mowday, whom Khumalo claims as one of her “daughters”, as well as her own son, violinist Tshepo Mngoma. Such musicians lend a fresh edge to the diversity of the album’s sound.

She was first recognised as a mezzo-soprano, though her vocal range covers both contralto and soprano. She was exposed to jazz music through her upbringing, as well as other sounds, including maskandi and gospel. Her father was a music professor and historian who also encouraged her interest in drama and dance. When you see her on stage you see this alchemy at work.

Now 52, Sibongile Khumalo is focusing on the future, not just as a performing artist but, some would say, also as a cultural commissar — although she loathes the term. She’s chairperson of the annual National Arts Festival and sits on the 2010 ministerial advisory committee on arts and culture. She’s no longer just a creator of culture: she’s in a position to sanction and define it.

That means challenging the status quo. “The pendulum must come to rest in the middle, where an unbalanced swing was created,” she says. For Khumalo, balance is all-important. Her role, she says, is to claim space: for the “child playing a violin at the Linder Auditorium” as much as for the “craft worker from Limpopo”.

Khumalo is quick to challenge the notion that cultural policy is, by its nature, prescriptive. “We are not gods,” she says, “and nor are we judges.” That’s not always easy. Sometimes, she says, “people think you [have] money and expect that you will provide connections to power”. When this happens “the most responsible thing is to be truthful”.

It may sound heavy, but Khumalo denies this. “I feel blessed to play these roles,” she says, with a half smile.

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Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu is an art historian and freelance writer based in The city of Tshwane.

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