I grew up with rich lore about the musicians in my family — and musicians that my father, in particular, grew up around in Soweto. One memory is of hearing about the relationship between my late aunt, Thandi Ntuli (said to be an incredible soprano) and the now late vocalist, singer-songwriter, educator, innovator and performer of note, Mam’ Sibongile Khumalo.
The two were duet partners during their time at the University of Zululand, thick as thieves, and they live on in the memory of my folks as having been a formidable musical pair. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Mam’ Sibongile established a very special place in my heart, long before I ever engaged with her music.
Some years down the line, as a young student at the University of Cape Town with a ravenous appetite for learning about this music that has nourished me so deeply through the years, I came across Live at the Market Theatre, an album I consider to be a true South African classic.
The personnel is somewhat of a supergroup, comprising some of our greats; musicians who, in their own right, were instrumental in contributing to and shaping the sound of South African jazz. It features uBab’ Themba Mkhize on piano, uBab’ Khaya Mahlangu on tenor saxophone and flute, Ntate Prince Lengoasa on flugelhorn, uBab’ Herbie Tsoaeli on bass, uBab’ Vusi Khumalo on drums and, on vocals as well as violin, Mam’ Sibongile Khumalo. Over and above their roles as performers, were contributions by some of the band members as arrangers and composers.
But what makes an album a classic?
In this case, it is a performance where the selection of songs, which is an art on its own, includes works written by some of South Africa’s greatest composers and takes the listener on a journey through myriad textures drawn from the ever-expanding musical landscape from this part of the world.
One such song, and a personal album highlight for me, is Umhome, first recorded by Mam’ Miriam Makeba on her self-titled debut, Miriam Makeba, in 1960. The song was taught to Makeba by her grandmother, and expresses a sense of loss, longing and grief. Yet the version performed at The Market Theatre, with its deeply meditative bass line and hauntingly beautiful performance of the melody, is the one most familiar to me.
To perform the works of another, make them sound like your own, establish your version as a timeless rendition while conveying — with precision — the essence of the composition, is a skill that I sometimes feel is dwindling. This is particularly true in the context of a generation in which performers, myself included, tend to favour their own original works over jazz standards or covers.
So why does this all matter?
I’ve recently been contemplating the meaning of living in a country where important monuments of our history, such as the Apartheid Museum, Mandela House and, more recently, Liliesleaf, have closed their doors for good, yet memorials such as the Voortrekker Monument remain intact. This is in a country where we have seen a struggle in how we represent parts of our memory and, more importantly, which parts we choose to remember.
I’ve had this thought regarding my own work and realised that, as jazz in America has played that role of simultaneously retaining heritage and creating it, South African jazz has played the same role for me. It has provided some kind of pathway to self-realisation in a world in which the concept of who I am remains hazy.
Beyond all that is technically or theoretically rich about this album, at the heart of it, a classic recording such as this one is a monument. It is an archive through which learning about who I am in the context of our cultural identity is made more tangible.
To imagine a future of live performances in which we will never again be entranced by the voice of Mam’ Sibongile Khumalo feels like a loss that I haven’t yet come to terms with fully. But I remain forever grateful for the work and all the gifts she left for us, the next generation, through our many interactions with her spirit, her music and her voice.
On Sunday, September 26, Thandi Ntuli, Nduduzo Makhathini and Mark Fransman will play a show titled Throwing of the Bones at the Sandton City rooftop as part of the TMusicman Spectacular Concerts at the City. Click here for more information.