Sibongile Khumalo is South Africa’s first lady of song: the most celebrated member of a musical dynasty marked by an extraordinary vocal gene-pool and passion for making music; a singer who exemplifies and crowns the rich and multi-sourced Southern African singing tradition.
Sibongile Khumalo could have been the star of any major European or American operatic stage if she hadn’t felt so strongly about living and making a career in South Africa. But she did; and, as much as it is her extraordinary vocal gift, it is also her amazing sense of situatedness, in her art and in her being, that makes her the artist she is. This is a situatedness that informs her interpretations in every genre (from western classical to township jazz), because she has lived with them all, and grown with them, and believed in them as her own.
That Sibongile is so accomplished comes as no surprise to those who know even a little of her background
She was born and grew up in Orlando West, the heart of Soweto with her mother, Grace, a qualified nurse and her father, Khabi Mngoma, music professor and historian. Sibongile’s father was a man who celebrated all the music traditions he encountered, from the ubiquitous choral to a range of indigenous music expressions, and the full gamut of western classical genres.
Sibongile is her father’s daughter in her insatiable appetite for music and profound belief that no music belongs to some and not to others. In a way, everything that she does in her musical career is a tribute to him. She grew up listening to and singing opera, oratorio and the classical art song, and these are genres that she still loves to interpret and perform.
Sibongile's voice is, quite simply, one of the greatest natural instruments on display anywhere in the world. Visceral in its presence and sheer size, splendid in its timbral richness, expressive in every nuance of register and emotion, it is a voice immediately recognizable and always unique.
Sibongile’s first formal music teacher was Emily Motsieloa, herself an influential musician and personality in township circles around Johannesburg.
She went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts in Music from the University of Zululand and an Honours Degree in the History of Music from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Approached, at the youthful age of 24, to head up FUBA's music department (The Federated Union of Black Arts) and then, armed with a Higher Diploma in Personnel Management (gained in 1983) Sibongile became Funda Arts Centre's Coordinator for three years.
Sibongile is currently a member of the board of directors of SAMRO, chairman of the Performers Organisation of South Africa (POSA) and the South African Business Women’s Association (SABWA).
Having completed her diploma and honed her administrative skills, Sibongile spread her wings, participating in various research projects and working with different artistic institutes, amongst them the Madimba Institute of African Music and the board of Opera Africa.
In later years, she would join the Festival Committee and Board of Directors of the National Arts Festival (NAF), Grahamstown, and ultimately become the Chairman of the Festival Committee, navigating a transitional period in which the NAF was charting a new path for itself. She retired from the NAF board and festival committee in 2010.
Performing all over the world
In 1992, Sibongile began to perform in earnest – and the list of her shows is long and hugely impressive. Notable amongst these performances was The Three Faces of Sibongile Khumalo, a sell-out show held at Kippies in Johannesburg which showcased her proficiency in the jazz, South African indigenous music and opera genres. This performance also earned her the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music in 1993, firmly establishing her as a woman to watch on the South African music scene.
Since then, Sibongile has been seen on stage with the Brodsky Quartet; Oumou Sangare, Sally Nyolo (formerly of Zap Mama) and Hanitra Rasoanaivo from the group Tarika, in a collaboration called ‘Women of Afrika’; she has toured the USA with Hugh Masekela and done numerous other collaborations with him on home soil, including the hugely successful “Songs of Migration”; she was part of the ‘Intercontinental’ tour with Jack Dejohnette, Danilo Perez, Jerome Harris, Byron Wallen and Jason Yarde; she performed a special commission by Jason Yarde at the Bath International Music Festival, called ‘Reflections in Reverence and Rememberance’, which also premiered at the National Arts Fetival, Grahamstown.
Not neglecting her operatic interests, Sibongile collaborated with sopranos Aviva Pelham and Virginia Davids in 1999 for a series of concerts entitled, Divine Divas, for which they were awarded an FNB VITA Award for the Best Musical Performance of the year.
Khumalo has sung in major venues not only in South Africa but all over the world. Appearances as a soloist with South African symphony orchestras in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, stand alongside her realisations of leading roles such as Carmen, Amneris in Aida and Azucena in Il Trovatore at the Artscape Opera Stage and the State Theatre Opera House in Pretoria, the Witch in Hansel und Gretel at the Roodepoort Opera. She sang the role of Azucena at Den Norske Opera in Oslo in 2004.
She has been heard at the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican Centre. As part of the African Odyssey series at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC; she performed at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
Singing the title role in Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Princess Magogo ka Dinuzulu, presented by Opera Africa, which had its world premier at the Playhouse Opera in 2002, with further appearances at the HetMuzik Theater, Amsterdam and at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago.
Khumalo’s oratorio repertoire includes among others, Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, both the Verdi and Mozart Requiems, and Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Zulu epic uShaka ka Senzangakhona.
In the midst of a whirlwind schedule of performances, Sibongile finally decided to settle down to actually recording an album, which she did in 1996. Her first CD, Ancient Evenings, was an exploration of the African indigenous music that she had been brought up listening to, and it earned her two South African Music Awards - Best Female Vocal Performance and Best Adult Contemporary Performance as well as Song of the Year for composer Motsumi Makhene's song "Untold Story". In 1998, Sibongile released her second album, a live recording of a performance held at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. Aptly entitled Live at the Market Theatre, this album turned its attention to Sibongile's love of jazz. Again, the album received public and critical acclaim, and again, Sibongile took home a SAMA award, this time for the Best Adult Contemporary Performance. Immortal Secrets is the title of Sibongile Khumalo's third album, a CD that continued the work she began with Ancient Evenings. A thoughtful, introspective and nostalgic CD, Immortal Secrets articulated the feelings and reflections of a contemporary, sometimes urban being, seeking to maintain their core identity as a person steeped in African culture and heritage.
This fun and lighthearted offering pays tribute to all the people who had a profound influence on her outlook and grasp of music. From the songbook of Allen Kwela, a master guitar player respected and lauded all over South Africa to the vocal sounds of Letta Mbulu and the girl group Joy.
And then came Quest, an album that truly shows just how Sibongile is the epitome of the perfect New South African, an individual with a strong sense of self and culture, who is equally open and receptive to difference, ignoring borders artificially created by culture, language and history. Quest garnered Sibongile SAMA for best Female Vocal Perfomance. As well as a nomination for best Producer.
And, most recently, the self-titled Sibongile Khumalo, an inspired and inspirational album that moves from the substantial repertoire of the nineteenth-century western classical repertoire to the equally classic gems of African choralism and the songs of Princess Magogo ka Dinuzulu that she has made her own. Again, this album earned her a nomination for best Female Vocal Performance.
Sibongile Khumalo has spent a great deal of her extremely busy schedule honing her skills as a producer, not only on stage, but in the recording studio, ensuring a legacy for future young singers. She recorded a Live cd and dvd for the launch of her independent record label, Magnolia Vision Records, founded in 2007, and 50th birthday celebrations.
A busy schedule
When South Africa celebrated 10 Years Of Democracy in 2004, Sibongile was part of the Creative Collective comprised of Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbulu, Anant Singh, Jonas Gwangwa among others. They conceptualised, directed and staged different forms of celebration for this remarkable year in the history of South Africa. This became one of Sibongile’s highlights in this year, as the celebrations continued throughout the year.
In August 2006 Sibongile was the musical director for the ‘African Soul Sisters’ concert, as part of the Standard Bank Joy for Jazz in Johannesburg. In October of that year she was also music director for ‘Soul on Turf’ at Sun City and in November conceived and directed the 30th Anniversary Celebrations for the Khongisa Academy for the Performing Arts, Kwa-Dlangezwa, KZN.
Sibongile remains involved with the Khongisa Academy for the Performing Arts, started by her late father Khabi Mngoma. In March of 2007, she founded the Khabi Mngoma Foundation, whose purpose it is to fundraise for the Khongisa Academy.
In 2007, she spent several periods abroad, in March touring Europe with Jack DeJohnette and others in a collaboration entitled Intercontinental. The tour ended at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
In July of the same year, she sang in Phillip Miller’s Rewind Cantata at the `Celebrate Brooklyn’ Festival in Brooklyn USA. And in August performed in Opera Africa’s Princess Magogo ka Dinuzulu, prior to a tour to Oslo, Norway, presented by Den Norske Opera.
On her return, Sibongile co-produced and directed a musical collaboration with other esteemed African singers that include Sylvia Mdunyelwa, Abigail Kubheka and Gloria Bosman, called
SISTAS HEALING OUR SOULS, at the Cape Town City Hall and at the Artscape Opera stage in 2008.
As though her performance schedule was not sufficiently demanding, Sibongile formed part of a collective of musicians and composers who contributed to the Closing Ceremony of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, staged in Johannesburg.
Because of her ability to treat every piece of music with poise and integrity, in May 2011 Sibongile was invited back to sing in Philip Miller’s ‘Rewind Cantata’, staged at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, and a 3-city tour of Isak Roux’s Jazz-Gospel cantata ‘Coming Home’ which took place in August.
After many years of absence, Sibongile had a particularly successful return to the Joburg Theatre in a one-off concert entitled “Spirit Ascending”.
Sibongile made her debut appearance at the Luanda International Jazz Festival and also performed at a South African embassy National Day event in Kampala, Luanda.
She was also one of the featured performers in the Jazz Foundation’s Melodi Collaborations.
She describes her appearance at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival in August as one of the highlights of 2011, hosting the ‘Conversation with Wynton Marsalis’ and collaborating with him in an impromptu performance.
In October 2011, Sibongile performed ‘Haya Mntwan‘ Omkhulu’, a song cycle based on 8 songs of Princess Magogo ka Dinuzulu with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra at the Durban City Hall, with maestro Arjan Tien, with whom she recorded the songs for the self-titled album Sibongile Khumalo.
Sibongile enjoyed a hugely successful and significant performance year in 2012. The highlights include an appearance at the Lyric Theatre, Johannesburg, where she staged the first of a number of performances celebrating 2 Decades of Song as a full time singer and performer. She also released the second album from her Independent Label, Magnolia Vision Records, Music Is Everywhere by Sifiso Khanyile.
In July-August she embarked on the landmark concert tour entitled Reflect. Celebrate. Live:The University Tour (R.C.L.) Another milestone for Sibongile in which she put her producer skills to good effect. She conceived and co-directed a 90 minute concert, in which she paid homage to her family, and the community of musicians she grew up in, musicians who had an impact on her growth, and the choices she made throughout her career.
Reflect. Celebrate. Live:The University Tour (R.C.L.) was a feast for the senses. She put together a 21 piece ensemble comprised of a young cast of 12-voices, a jazz trio, a string quartet and 2 narrators in an exploration of her continually evolving sound. R.C.L. a celebration of Sibongile’s 2 Decades of Song, as much as it was her act of giving thanks, of giving back to the South African public and institutions that have supported her work throughout her remarkable career.
In October Sibongile travelled to Amsterdam, London and Washington DC with Hugh Masekela, performing in ‘Songs of Migration’. The production was well received before it returned to a highly appreciative audience at Artcape Opera in November.
In December 2012, Reflect. Celebrate. Live reprised at the State Theatre, Pretoria. A grand ending to a milestone year for this irrepressible and dynamic performer.
2013 has started at a remarkable speed for Sibongile. Having been contracted to be the Musical Director, composer and arranger for the AFCON 2013 Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Being one who relishes a challenge, she enlisted the services of 2 others and in just under 3 months, delivered the soundtrack for both Ceremonies with competence and imagination.
Sibongile continues to inspire the creation of new work. She has been invited to participate in Credo, a new work by Bongani Ndodana-Breen, as well as the commission of Mazisi Kunene’s Anthem of the Decades by Motsumi Makhene.
It is a brand new year, and Sibongile’s calendar is filling up fast.
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