Sibongile Khumalo in her own words

Not everything  that matters is on the Web. In fact, much that matters about South Africa’s cultural creativity isn’t. As examples, the archives of the Star Tonight in its heyday, when it cared about the South African arts scene, have not been digitised; and anything from the short-lived Weekender is un-findable (and would be behind an exclusionary paywall if it wasn’t).

So here, from my interviews with her for those publication, is the voice of Sibongile Khumalo, explaining why a decolonised, feminist approach to African music is the only way to secure not only an accurate record of our past, but an open road to our future. 

On decolonising minds: “I remember being on a plane and stopping over in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some Congolese army officers boarded and kept trying to chat me up in French. I lost patience: come on, speak English! And then they cracked up because I didn’t speak French. It struck me what great products we all were of our former colonial masters.” 

On arts festivals: “There’s a danger in festivals being all things to all people. The festival market has grown enormously; for elite festival-goers world travel has opened up too. So for us to be talking about ‘world class’ [festivals] to mean merely copying international models or importing performers may not be sensible. ‘World-class’ suggests a need to be validated by what’s over there – whether or not it validates our goals.”

On the need to build new indigenous repertoire: “We need to reach a point where to be recognised as a jazz singer in this country, certain songs beyond Nyilo Ntyilo and Laukutshon’Ilanga need to be in your repertoire. Songs like Gloria Bosman’s Sombawo, Judith Sephuma’s A Cry A Smile A Dance, Victor Ntoni’s Theta. That isn’t ‘doing covers’ – this isn’t pop music – these are standards: part of our musical heritage.”

“We have wonderful standards in our repertoire, in every genre. We need to recognise them, rework them and use them as the foundation for new original compositions. Only when we reach that point will ‘African renaissance’ in music become more than a slogan.”

On working with drum legend Jack deJohnette in the band Intercontinental: “I had to think like an instrumentalist and take a journey inside the music…I did a lot of what I call ‘the duck thing’: above the water you’re sailing along serenely; under the water you’re paddling furiously to stay afloat….[But] six numbers for that show; completely free choice, all of us suggesting and deciding – and three of them end up from South Africa! How affirming is that?”

On waking up to African music: “[At the Funda Centre] we did a project called Melodi: Sounds of Home. That was a defining moment. Oddly, given my father’s background in the study of Zulu music, I found myself drawn to the complexities of Pedi sounds.”

On singing Princess Magogo’s amahubo in the song-cycle Haya Mtwan’Omkulu: I’m the child of an archivist, remember?…I grew up with that music and when I was very young I even heard [her] live at Kwa Phindangeni. But I grew up in Soweto a typical city girl and that influence and inspiration faded…Yet as I came to do more concerts and recitals, I realised that while I was singing these gorgeous German lieder, French chansons and so on, there was nothing in the repertoire from here.

“As an opera-trained singer – where you need a big, projected sound – I have to work out how to handle melodies which taper off. I need to project them without making them sound ‘sung’ in the operatic sense. It’s a compromise – no, a marriage – between [Magogo’s] musical spirit and the modern musical aesthetic. You find you need to go beyond the rigid boundaries of the bar-lines.”

On women as heroes in African history: “The tremendous creativity of [Princess Magogo ka Dinizulu] herself is evident. [Her] songs aren’t mere repetitions of older songs; they are her creations: full of enormous passion and lyricism and the praise-singer’s intelligent commentary on the society around her.

“The tendency of history is to make prominent women seem like exceptions. The war leader Mkabayi is another example. We hide the women’s part in decision making. And that leads to us minimising the importance of what our mothers and grandmothers used to do even in the home.” 

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