Farewell to Sibongile Khumalo, Mother of South African Song

Our sorrow at the passing of Jonas Mosa Gwangwa was compounded yesterday by news of the death of Mam’ Sibongile Khumalo after a stroke at the age of 63.

The official provincial funeral for Gwangwa takes place today, Friday January 29 from 09:00h . The link for virtual attendance is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYA5zdhL6FM

Sibongile Khumalo

Much will be written about the music career of Sibongile Khumalo, and much will elide all her achievements into the single, limited category of ‘singer’. Singer she was, no doubt, and a magnificent one, with a voice that melded honey, smoke and crystalline waters into a cascade of captivating sound.  She resisted, throughout her career, the genre envelopes that critics laid on it. She did not set out to be an “opera singer” or a “jazz singer” and did not appreciate media coverage that tried to confine her within one of those boxes and assess her work based on its parameters.

Khumalo was a musician who had far more than the ‘Three Faces…’ of one of her best loved shows.

Her stated mission was to develop, through the programmes she developed, her arrangements and her interpretations in performance, an authentic South African vocal concert repertoire that spanned the amahubo of Princess Magogo through 1950’s pop hits like Into  Yam’ to modern jazz classics such as Moses Molelekoa’s Mountain Shade – and even Weekend Special. Her career earned more than a dozen awards, national and musical, and produced seven albums as leader including the SAMA-winning 2002 Quest, plus countless collaborations.

But she was much more too. As a scholar, she researched the history of her own first teacher , vaudevillian and pianist Emily Motsieloa. As an all-round music industry professional, she perfected the production skills that supported her label, Magnolia Vision Records. She was music director for several stage productions. As an educator – as well as mentoring countless individuals – she was involved in nurturing the Khongisa Academy for Performing Arts which had been founded by her father, composer and teacher Dr Khabi Mngoma in Kwa Dlangezwa in KZN. She was a respected teacher, heading the Madimba Institute of African Music at Soweto’s Funda Centre, and teaching at the FUBA Academy. In those roles, she was a pioneer of decolonising the music curriculum, not by rejecting European music traditions, but by contextualising them and foregrounding the music education historically embedded in African societies.

“The music education available [here] at tertiary level is an extension of the Eurocentric model…In our culture, we also have music education,” she told journalist Mike Mzileni.

As an activist, Khumalo played an important role in musicians’ organisations and task teams in the immediate pre- and post-liberation period, asserting the role of grassroots artists and their communities’ needs, not globalised commercial imperatives, in shaping the nation’s future cultural policy. And as a human being, she was always there, for any young artist seeking counselling, support and advice.

Though extended ill-health had kept her off the stage in recent years, her spirit and achievements continue to be cited as an inspiration by new generations of young vocal artists, and especially young women. Through the foundations she laid, that will continue to be so, even though she has left us. Hamba Kahle, Mother of Song.   

4 thoughts on “Farewell to Sibongile Khumalo, Mother of South African Song

  1. My colleague and friend, Sibongile Khumalo embraced humanity in a manner that very few others have managed to do-with dignity, maturity, sense of humour and a formidable intellect. She carried with her the imperative of empowering young women and promoting and empowering the ‘previously under-served’, a term which she preferred to use. Her talent and musicianship are legendary- I will however remember her mainly for her genuine modesty, beauty and friendship. Rest In Peace dear friend! Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph

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