/ 23 September 2021

Self-knowledge and discipline were at  the root of Sibongile Khumalo’s success

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Sibongile Khumalo at her 60th birthday celebration at the Market Theatre in 2017. (Photo: Siphiwe Mhlambi)

‘Happy Birthday mother of mine. You are such an exquisite gift. May God keep you healthy, happy and blessed. Sending you all the love️.” (24-09-2020)

On this day last year, I texted a birthday wish to Sibongile Khumalo, as I did every 24 September. She always responded timeously and appreciatively with the conversation often venturing into how she was being spoiled rotten by her adorable grandchildren. But on this birthday, she did not respond. Ever. 

A signal by a close friend of Khumalo’s, my mother Zip’s message also drew a blank. Her intuition immediately told her that something was amiss, that Khumalo was most probably unwell. This marked the beginning of the journey’s end.

Birthdays are generally celebratory occasions, ones often preceded by buzzing anticipation, countdowns, planning and great excitement expectant of the wisdom that comes with another trip around the sun. This may indeed be so, until you lose a loved one.

Khumalo’s birthday is not the first one I have been anxious about since losing my grandmother Bulie, the love of my life, this past December and pushing through her birthday on 2 August. For the first time in my adult years, I find myself randomly asking why birthdays don’t “die” with the person.

 Chalk up this absurd question to the pathology of a grieving soul. The past 18 months have seen us move through death at the speed of a bullet train. The relentless sting of loss has us submerged in a kind of grief that corners us to suppress rather than express. As a result, I do not pen this piece in celebration of Khumalo’s birthday, it’s too soon. Instead, I am taking the opportunity of her birth date to momentarily lift my head above the water and release some of my thoughts; to reflect on the lessons I continue to draw from the legacy of this great woman.

Much has already been written about Sibongile Khumalo; her life, extensive repertory and her diverse discography. Her career has always been fascinating to me, a young music student, in that the bulk of her repertoire was delivered primarily on the stage. 

Hers was not a career whose success was contingent solely upon record volume sales but rather one of consistent live performances. This is significant in an industry where live music spaces and performance opportunities continue to dwindle disproportionately to its fast-growing artist population. 

Her career was the embodiment of artistic dexterity, a tree with many branches equal in strength and solidity. We already know that her earliest influences were from her music professor father, Khabi Mngoma and her musically gifted mother, Grace, who worked as a nurse. The environment under which she grew up was primed for exposure to music as a discipline and furthermore, a skill. In this way, she was not just a mere talent. 

Her father instructing her to sit at the foot of Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu and listen to her play the indigenous instruments ugubhu, umakhweyana and isithontolo while singing, served as her entry point into the sonic identity of Zulu traditional music. 

But we have to take a step further and pay tribute to the other role players in her formative years. One such person was a woman by the name of Emily Motsieloa. She was a pianist and cofounder of the famous band The Merry Blackbirds, led by Peter Rezant. Motsieloa was a piano teacher, choir mistress and a trainer of artists steeped in American style vaudeville music. She ran a piano studio in Alexandra township from 1937.

Sibongile Khumalo approached jazz with the martial-style discipline inherent in the study of art song, says writer and musician Nomfundo Xaluva. (Photo: Siphiwe Mhlambi)

In one of Christopher Ballantine’s publications, he cites Motsieloa as one of the only three black formal music teachers of the 1930s, alongside Rueben Caluza and Marie Dube. Khumalo was around seven or eight years old when she started singing in Motsieloa’s children’s choir, the Tiny Tots. 

Another black woman influenced by Motsieloa in her childhood was media veteran Felicia Mabuza-Suttle. In a recent edition  of the Mail & Guardian, she paid tribute to Motsieloa saying: “My background in Mrs Emily Motsieloa’s Tiny Tots taught me to do the same in Soweto … to gather young people and start a dance school.”

Khumalo drew many influences from Motsieloa’s tutelage, as the young woman not only sang, but also played the violin. Khumalo often joked that while other children were playing in the streets of Orlando, she was either in music lessons or practising her instruments. It is no wonder, then, that she modelled discipline and wielded her skills like a blade throughout her career. Such were the benefits of starting young.

Khumalo was always deliberate in advocating for women musicians and creatives, on and off the stage. Never hesitant to sing another woman’s praises while gently guiding them to betterment, I believe strongly that she would want us to pay tribute to and recognise the women who shaped her artistry and provided the foundations of her excellence. 

Thembela Vokwana, of the University of Fort Hare, articulates that “hers was a talent nurtured by women musicians at a time when it was unthinkable in apartheid South Africa … it is from this female-centred environment that Sibongile particularly looked out and was always encouraging to young female singers charting their way in the world of opera performance”.

Staying on the subject of women, Princess Magogo ka Dinuzulu remains a landmark of Khumalo’s genesis into art song. Magogo was no ordinary woman shrunk by the patriarchal traditions of old. The very act of pursuing her music and making appearances was considered breaking Zulu custom, especially as she did this while married. 

Much of her repertoire and interviews have been recorded and transcribed by the likes of ethnomusicologists Hugh Tracey of Rhodes University’s International Library of African Music, as well as David Rycroft of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Access to this archive remains a conversation steeply in arrears.

In an interview about Princess Magogo, Khumalo credits her as a significant historical figure to her personally, both as a woman and as a musician. She adds the name of a woman whose legacy remains muted by history, Nokuthela Dube. Dube was the first black woman to qualify as a teacher and the author of the first Zulu songbook. She also happened to be the wife of the founding president of the ANC, Reverend John Langalibalele Dube.

Khumalo describes these women as feminists, citing their resilience and refusal to surrender to the patriarchal expectations to be subservient appendages to their husbands. In the short video of The Making of Princess Magogo (Opera Africa), Khumalo really delves into the story of Magogo and what informed her portrayal of this incredible woman on stage. It is a convincing account of how Khumalo drew more from Magogo than just her musical prowess. She inherited her backbone.

Her sitting begrudgingly at Magogo’s feet proved no futile exercise after all, as age and wisdom revealed to her the magnanimity of Princess Magogo’s life and work. She would go on to perform her music as adapted by Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo and orchestrated by Professor Peter Klatzow on stages around the world. It is as if her father was acting on a premonition of what his daughter would become and, therefore, preparing her for the tall task of custodianship.

Perhaps that’s why it comes as no surprise that Khumalo, in an interview with Open Sky’s Willard Jenkins, cites her father as the “first feminist I ever knew”. In the same conversation, she outlines how her classical training was mixed with the jazz she was exposed to through working with guitarist/composer Allen Kwela and singer and composer Sophie Mgcina. 

Speaking to Percy Mabandu in 2012, she talked fondly of Mgcina as a mentor. “She protected me and always pushed me into positions and situations because she wanted me to grow.” 

Sibongile Khumalo with pianist and composer Themba Mkhize. The two collaborated on many occasions, with Mkhize producing her debut album Ancient Evenings. (Photo: Siphiwe Mhlambi)

These influences marked the genesis of Khumalo’s entry into the improvisatory artform of jazz. Here, she relied on what she could hear versus what she could read, although she was, in fact, musically literate. She understood from the onset that jazz was intrinsically an aural tradition and quickly familiarised herself with the requisite methods of ingesting the “jazz sound”. 

I strongly doubt that she made a conscious effort to be a “crossover” or “genre-defying” artist per se. My submission is that she simply opened herself up to the endless possibilities offered by a democratic artform like jazz while finding anchor in the classical technique that characterised her voice and, dare I say, secured its longevity. 

The attribute of crossover artist is perhaps an unintended consequence of self-expression influenced by diversity, exposure and artistic awareness. As I’ve said, Khumalo approached jazz with the martial-style discipline inherent in the study of art song. It is this multifaceted identity that inspired her debut show, The Three Faces of Sibongile Khumalo at the iconic jazz club, Kippies, in 1992. 

This show earned her the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1993, which served as the springboard for her indelible contribution to South African jazz. The three faces concept returned to Newtown at the Market Theatre in 2017. This time, it was to celebrate Khumalo’s 60th birthday. I had the profound honour of singing in the jazz leg of the concert series together with contemporaries Mimi Mtshali and Lindiwe Maxolo. So overwhelming was the experience that it completely escaped me where the title of the concert celebrations emanated from. I wasn’t aware at the time that it was a full circle moment in herstory. Added to that, we rehearsed in the Kippies building which is a stone’s throw away from the theatre and the space where it all began. 

It was on this night that we did an impromptu performance of Mankunku’s 1968 classic Yakhal’inkomo. I was on piano, and she was on vocals — a significant moment for me personally as I first came across this song on Khumalo’s Live at The Market Theatre album. Now, here I was performing it with her on this very same stage. 

I am reminded of a similar experience performing Mountain Shade with her in 2015 at the Ekurhuleni Comes Alive Jazz evening and making a complete mess of it. It is a technically demanding piece of music written by the late piano virtuoso Moses Taiwa Molelekwa with lyrics penned by Khumalo herself. 

Singing this song has always been difficult but I keep improving with age and experience, each time mastering a phrase, reaching a note with greater clarity, expanding my breath to negotiate the intricate pitch intervals. I’ve sung it to her on more than one occasion, nerve-wracking as it was, but she was always kind. She made it easy to sing in front of her. 

As young artists, she would attend our gigs at the now-defunct jazz venue, The Orbit, as well as at music festivals around the country. She understood what it meant to us as her “children” to experience her support in such a visible way.

I always used to tell her that she was a school. I don’t think she took me seriously though. Not because she was modest, but because she considered herself a student of other artists instead. 

As a scholar, I identify deeply with this. The notion of being a student never leaves you, it’s ingrained in your subconscious. Her recordings are expansive audio textbooks from which to draw, not only new repertoire, but ways of interpreting music and adapting it to the voice.
  Her style of improvising was unique in every way, nothing like the Ella Fitzgerald style of scatting jazz singers aspire to today. Hers was authentically inspired by the tapestry of her training and influences. Her ancestry always permeated through her in moments of artistic vulnerability, rooting her feet deeply in what the moment had to offer.

A classic example of this is her work with renowned American jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette and his ensemble, the Intercontinentals. This ensemble provided a space for Khumalo to explore multiple modes of improvisation, using her voice to converse with the other instruments in the common pursuit of spiritually connecting and reaching commonality rather than highlighting differences. None of their performances at prestigious jazz festivals locally and abroad were recorded for release, something jazz writer and researcher Gwen Ansell considers a “regrettable gap in Khumalo’s discography.”

Khumalo’s repertoire and musical career is available through a simple online search. It is available for all to read and savour, written from the perspectives of many a writer and artist. Through her life and work, she provided us with multiple references of what true artistry was all about, giving expression to compositions by often under-recognized South African composers of pre-democracy. From Magogo to [Benjamin John Peter] Tyamzashe, from [John Knox] Bokwe to Brenda Fassie.     Khumalo not only lived her truth, but she also sang the pipes out of it too. Militant in her pursuit of excellence and resolute in the empowerment of women, she leaves behind a legacy with antenna long enough to bridge any genre divide.

Grounding this reflection on the influences of the African soil, I don’t seek to erase her western European works and their composers. It is in the spirit of acknowledging her indigenous roots as sufficient. It was not her mastery of western art music that elevated her artistry but rather the opposite; her traditional beginnings in music elevated her mastery of western art song. An early start matters.

Accepting her mother’s honorary doctorate posthumously awarded by Wits University in April 2021, a decision the university took and informed Khumalo about as early as March 2020, daughter Ayanda Khumalo reads a speech partly penned by her mother where she honours her days in the youth music program housed in room 2 of the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre (DOCC) in Soweto. “Every child deserves a room 2 so that they can see life beyond their immediate reality.”

Perhaps, it is no coincidence that she was born on a day now recognised as Heritage Day in South Africa. She was heritage and because heritage cannot die, she lives in the very essence of who we are. I know she lives in me. Maybe next September, I’ll be in a more celebratory mood, my spirit having moved a step closer to healing. In the meantime, I find comfort in Sibongile’s own lyrics. 

‘Isithembiso sifezekile. Akusenani, aah xola moya!’

Dr Sibongile Khumalo passed away on Janaury 28 2021. She was 63 years old.