This South African Heritage month, we honour legend and national treasure, Sibongile Khumalo, who celebrates her 60th birthday with a concert series called More Than Three Faces at the Market Theatre from September 22 to 24. It’s a three-day documentation of musical heritage with ‘passing on the baton’ as the thread that runs through it.
Coming from musical royalty that spans generations and includes her music master of a father, Professor Khabi Mngoma, Sibongile Khumalo is musically gifted and skilled, particularly in her fluid combination of classical, jazz and African traditional music.
Her debut album, Ancient Evenings (1996) won two South African Music Awards (SAMAs) for Best Female Vocal Performance and Best Adult Contemporary Performance. With her seventh and most recent album, Breath of Life (2016 it is now quite clear that one of her contributions to the local music industry was developing people’s palate and appreciation for her brand of South African music when it was uncommon for someone from a classically trained and choral background to crack the mainstream.
She spoke to us about legacy, life balance and music.
AP: What is music to you when it is such a big part of your lineage, what you are and a big part of your family? From your grandfather, the virtuoso concertina playing maskandi musician, David Zwelakhe Mngoma; your father, the great Professor Khabi Mngoma to your son, violinist and music director, Tshepo Mngoma and niece, the opera singer, Sibongile Mngoma. The explanation of the Zulu word Mngoma (if I’m correct) is linked to healing through song, so I imagine you must relate to music differently from us ordinary folk.
SK: Music to me is life. It is an intrinsic part of who I am and what I do, so much so that one almost takes it for granted. I do not know if I would have done anything else with my life, because I was really never exposed to anything else as a child [smiles] The curious thing is that we never spent family moments making music. It was like breathing…pervasive, ever present yet unobtrusive.
AP: The name of your upcoming 60th birthday celebration concert series, More Than Three Faces, extends from your seminal show, The Three Faces of Sibongile Khumalo which launched you in 1992 and led to your Standard Bank Young Artist Award win for Music in 1993. What does it say about where you are right now as a person and as an artist? –
SK: I hope that the interest I have in more than the three genres that set me off is very firmly established. In 1992/93, Western art music was one of my big musical influences. That has changed. African classical and traditional music takes a big place in my expression and interest. I have a greater awareness as a contemporary African woman, of the need to not only speak [as an] African, but to practise and live African. My spirituality is very much an expression of being an African, as I understand it today.
AP: Tell us about the music you have selected for this concert series.
SK: For the first concert, I chose African classical music that I have sung over the years. The music of Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, music composed by Prof Mzilikazi Khumalo, and music that has been written with my voice in mind by other younger South African composers, people like Bongani Ndodana, Philip Miller, Isak Roux.
AP: How do you view performance, because you’ve made your name from singing in different styles from opera, jazz to traditional music?
SK: A performer is a storyteller. A performer is a messenger. As a performer, I am a conduit for that which I have been assigned to convey at any given point in time. Whenever I am on the stage I must engage the audience and get them to engage with what I am saying as much as possible.
AP: How do you balance your life?
SK: By living consciously and being aware of what is important in my life. By surrounding myself with things that are important to me and people that matter. Critically, by embracing all that is and accepting that I cannot, will not be and do everything. I try not to live with regret. I accept that ‘it is what it is’. I view everything, most if not all circumstances, as opportunities to learn.
AP: You were a teacher before doing music professionally. What is the most important teaching that goes beyond the classroom that you hoped to convey to your students in the arts?
SK: At the time when I was a teacher, the most important thing was to get students to be the best that they can be. I have learned over the years that the pursuit of excellence is a transferable skill/attribute. That greatness is an achievable quality.
AP: How important is passing on the legacy? And what do you consider when passing on the baton? You’ve never shied away from working with young artists – from the ones included in your show to your other collaborations with the likes of Majola and Tumi Molekane.
SK: Apart from the fact that one gets to see what young people are doing and how they are thinking, one gets to share what one has learned too over the years. I have often wondered about this notion of leaving a legacy and why we are so preoccupied with it. We need to do the best with our lives, and do the best that we can to make a difference in somebody’s life, not because we want to leave a legacy, but because we have been bequeathed a gift that we can share with others. How kind, empathetic, joyful, compassionate have I been with and to others — for me that is more lasting. We often equate leaving a legacy with putting up physical structures. Those are important, yet unless those structures are imbued with a certain quality or value, they will not really mean that much to those for whom they are intended.
A big thank you to Mam Sibongile Khumalo. We wish her a Happy Birthday on September 24, which also happens to be South Africa’s Heritage Day. Follow her on Twitter for 60 facts about herself leading up to her concert.