On January 28, South Africans mourned the untimely passing of another musical giant, as the voice of Sibongile Khumalo went silent.
Born in Soweto on September 24, 1957, Khumalo grew up surrounded by music. Her father, Khabi Mngoma, led a choir, in which she sang and played the violin. He later established a music department at the University of Zululand and became a professor there.
Interviewed in Afripop! on the occasion of her 60th birthday Khumalo recalled:
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.
In a 2014 interview in the UK Independent she explained: “Since everything was communal, we all heard each other’s music: some neighbours held church services in their yard, some played drums, some—like my elder brother—played jazz, so I grew up surrounded by myriad sounds.”
At eight years of age Khumalo began learning violin, singing, drama, and dance. She would later train for a career as a music teacher, obtaining a BA in music at the University of Zululand, and a BA Hons from the University of the Witwatersrand.
In the early 1990s she became a full-time artist. Her repertoire was mainly classical music, specialising initially in Lieder by Schubert and Brahms. She made her opera debut in Carmen, and in 1995 she sang in Händel’s Messiah under conductor Yehudi Menuhin. At the same time, she was also performing in clubs as a jazz singer. In 1993 she won the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artists Award at the Grahamstown Festival.
Although Western classical music was originally a big influence, African music traditions became increasingly important. In 1996 she released her first album, Ancient Evenings. She told the Independent: “I knew when I came to record my first album, it wouldn’t be of European art songs, even though I’d studied them and could do them well, because that music didn’t express who I am.”
The record featured African hymns, mainly in indigenous languages, and it became an immediate success. It won the South African Music Awards (SAMAS) for Best Female Vocal Performance and Best Adult Contemporary Performance. Live at the Market Theatre (1998), Immortal Secrets (2000), Quest (2002), and Breath of Life (2016) followed, and Khumalo consolidated her reputation as one of the most influential South African vocalists—trained in the classical genre, but transcending it by fusing elements of jazz and traditional African music to create a special South African brand.
In 2007 Khumalo launched her own label, Magnolia Vision Records. In 2013 she was a soloist in Credo, a multimedia oratorio composed and performed in honor of The Freedom Charter.
Sibongile Khumalo defined herself as a storyteller, a messenger. She was also a strong advocate for the performing arts and for the rights of women. “I have a greater awareness as a contemporary African woman, of the need to not only speak [as an] African, but to practice and live African. My spirituality is very much an expression of being an African, as I understand it today.”
She was awarded several honorary doctorates for her contributions to music, and in 2008 The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver by the South African Presidency for “her excellent contribution to the development of South African art and culture in the musical fields of jazz and opera.”
Khumalo’s dedication to her craft was imbued with self-respect, dignity, and pride. As she remarked in her interview with Afripop!: “We often equate leaving a legacy with putting up physical structures… 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.”
The quality and value of Sibongile Khumalo’s life and artistry is a legacy to be revered and cherished. It will live long in South African music history.