A product of Orlando West, growing up under the teachings of her mother Grace, who was a nurse and father Professor Khabi Mngoma, a music expert and historian, Sibongile Khumalo carries and embraces the influential role played by those around her throughout her success.
From ‘the Three Faces of Sibongile Khumalo’ concert at the formerly popular jazz club Kippie’s in Newtown in 1992 (which scooped her The Standard Bank Young Artist award nomination) to the present, the humble and faithful Khumalo still maintains a strong purpose with her music. Even after her six albums, she still oozes inspiration and unsurpassed determination.
What does it mean to be Sibongile Khumalo after 20 years in the music industry?
Being Sibongile means to be a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a friend, a musician who enjoys what she does and who has the privilege to do projects that she enjoys.
Even though I still do bill-paying gigs, what has happened a lot this year especially is that I have got to do really artistically creative projects that I enjoy doing, and I am looking forward to doing more as the year unfolds. This year things look to be creatively challenging, creatively interesting.
How do you feel about your current musical expertise, compared with when you started?
If I was asked: "Wouldn’t you like to be 18 again?", the response is always no. If I were to go back to that age, I’d like to go back knowing what I know right now.
When I was younger, one was ether a pop singer, a jazz musician or an opera singer. It was very uncertain then… it was very uncertain being a classical trained singer getting into more popular contemporary-sounding music. I didn’t know what the response was going to be, I knew it was something I needed to do, something I wanted to do.
I do what I know and do what I do best without taking it for granted. I try to do interesting things with the music without necessarily trying to be clever about it. It’s more assuring to know that there are people out there that like what I do, but it’s also scary because you don’t want to be too comfortable with what you do. You want to speak your truth but you also want to take into account the fact that people respect what you do.
How has your sound changed over the decades?
I don’t think it has changed necessarily, but I have become more confident with the improviser in me, to allow the improvisatory voice to filter through.
Jazz musicians, especially vocalists, will tell you that one of the strengths and powers of being a jazz stylist is the art of improvisation, and over the years I have had to learn, challenge and "break myself down" in order to build everything up from scratch.
It all comes down to being vulnerable to music so that you can allow yourself to trust others around you, if you don’t trust people that you work with and do music with – It’s the element of music making that goes beyond the notes. The notes are there but then one needs to push themselves a bit further to find other things, to go into spaces that you’ve never gone to previously.
Tell me about the Reflect, Celebrate, Live tour.
In 1992 I did a concert at Kippies called The Three Faces of Sibongile Khumalo, and from that gig I was nominated for the Standard Bank Young Artist award for music. And 20 years later I am still around and I have garnered a reputation as an opera and jazz singer, as a singer who is hugely inspired by the African indigenous music of this country.
Its a recognition of a journey, and it is an acknowledgement that since that time a lot has happened. How do I mark this period and salute the people that have influenced me and shaped my world view and helped me find my feet in the industry?
2012 is the year in which my dad [Professor Khabi Mngoma] would have been 90 years old, and my father was my greatest influence. He was my first teacher, he was the person that helped me understand what music and music making is about. And so I am reflecting on those beginnings and I am celebrating the developments over the twenty years from that performance.
Part of the live show also has to do with the fact that increasingly I have become more confident with being a songwriter…the idea of being a songwriter for me is a big part of the now.
How do you think you have influenced the local music industry?
I think when I did Ancient Evenings, from a perspective of somebody who comes from a classically trained background, and coming from the choral world, some of the things I was doing musically were not commonplace, and there was scepticism among some of the record companies specifically.
They were sceptical of the value of the music I was going to bring out. Record companies executives said "this isn’t going to sell." Apart from Busi Mhlongo, who redefined, in a way, maskandi music, there were few of us who were bringing out recorded material. And because of the kind of material we were bringing out, it takes two to three years for the CD to settle in people’s minds, because it’s like pop – one of those feel good things that happen now and in a couple of weeks’ time they are gone.
So there weren’t that many singers, male or female, at the time, and when Ancient Evenings came out the reception was good and a lot more record companies were willing to take the risk with female singers outside of the pop vein.
I contributed to an opening up of people’s appreciation of SA music.
What do you still want to do with your career?
I want to go back to teaching… I did it formally in those years when I started and I have been doing it informally recently. The only thing I don’t like about teaching is that you need to set exams and mark papers [giggles]. I enjoy engaging young minds. I like that a lot. I enjoy challenging young minds to think beyond what they believe is possible. One of the things I learnt 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. That’s one of the things I find fascinating about working with young people.
Sibongile Khumalo performs at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on Friday at 7pm at the Guy Butler Theatre at the 1820 Settlers Monument. She then moves to Cape Town at the Baxter Concert Hall in Rondebosch on July 14 at 8pm. Her final destination show is in Johannesburg at the Wits Great Hall at Wits University on July 28. The Reflect, Celebrate, Live Tour will raise funds for the Wits Student Representative Council’s Humanitarian Fund.