Johannesburg - Sibongile Khumalo beams as she approaches her 60th birthday.
“In my spirit, in my mind, I feel very alive and young,” she says.
Khumalo will celebrate her birthday, which is on Heritage Day, 24 September, with a three-day tribute concert titled Sibongile Khumalo – More Than 3 Faces. It will document her musical heritage and legacy.
With a career spanning more than two decades, each of the three concerts will tell a different part of her story.
“The third night is really [going to be] a party and for a change I get to sit back and have people perform and interpret the music I’ve sung over the years.”
Making music choices
Khumalo says her instinct has always guided her music choices.
“Music is not just notes and sounds and rhythms. Music is the love that you give and receive from other people, the trust that you engender between yourself and other musicians.”
When things don’t work, she has “no qualms of walking away from a music-making relationship”, which is perhaps what has earned her the title of diva.
“You won’t be a diva unless you have sustenance and being seen to be successful at what you’re doing. I recognise the importance of that and embrace the title,” she says.
A defining moment
Winning the Standard Bank Young Artist award in 1993 was a defining moment in the career of this daughter of choral legend music professor Khabi Mngoma.
“What that award said to me is that you don’t have to limit yourself. It was a time also when we were moving towards the new democracy. There was a sense that it’s possible to be what you want to be, that as a black person in this country you can be okay in your skin,” she says.
“During those days I also played the violin and some people said it was good to see a black child playing this instrument and embracing the specialness of playing what is seen as a Western instrument.
“My father was my second music teacher, but he was my main influence and so [the award] also affirmed him and was empowering for both of us … for all of us who were doing that at that time. Today, black children playing the violin … you look at that and think wow, I’m happy. I’m grateful.”
Other career highlights include performing on international stages with fellow jazz icon Hugh Masekela, and playing the title role in the acclaimed African opera Princess Magogo ka Dinuzulu.
She laughs while recalling hosting a radio show with Masekela on Kaya FM.
“Twenty years ago, yuh! When Kaya started we were among the first presenters. We presented a programme on a Sunday afternoon and called it ‘Waar was jy?’. We celebrated our music and played old jams,” she says.
The nerves never disappear
A not-so-incredible experience was when she tripped onstage when performing in another opera, Verdi’s Aida.
“I was going up and the next thing I saw this black thing in front of me. I looked around and I realised I was on my knees. It was terrible,” she laughs.
Does she still feel butterflies before going on stage?
“The day I stop feeling nervous is the day I will stop. I still get very nervous.
“Some days I’m able to manage it, some other days I feel like I can’t do this any more. When there are no nerves, there wouldn’t be anything catapulting you to move ahead. When people come to see you, nobody wants to see you make a mess.”
Music was Khumalo’s only career option.
“There was no ‘I’ll fall back and become a carpenter or a plumber or something’. Each success that was manifesting confirmed that this is what I want to do.”
What would she still like to do?
Khumalo says it would be a dream to work with American jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin Jr and too-many-to-mention South African jazz musicians.
“Locally, I’d also like to experience working with kwaito or House musicians. That was the voice of our independence and it would be nice to experience that world,” she says. She is a fan of Vuzu Amp hip-hop reality show The Hustle.
“I also enjoy that young people embrace their languages.”
Sibongile Khumalo – More Than 3 Faces includes African indigenous and folk music, as well as jazz.
“I figured we need to celebrate our music, classical African music, as we understand it. Let’s tell our stories and share our memories in our voice. This is my output for my children, like every parent who wants to bequeath something to their children,” she says.
Khumalo has plenty of advice for up-and-coming artists.
“You need to have a plan for your life. Have your goals in mind and bite them in small sizes. Respect and make time for your craft; keep at it consistently.
“Prepare for your gigs and if something is hard then declare and say ‘I’m struggling’. Have a game plan.”
Fans will be thrilled with compositions by Motsumi Makhene, Bongani Ndodana, Isak Roux, and Phillip Miller, as well as a surprise award-winning American musician who can’t yet be named.
“We have a Grammy award-winning jazz pianist who’s coming down who I met 10 years ago. This is somebody who has affected the way I approach music-making in such a profound way,” she says.
Sibongile Khumalo – More Than 3 Faces will run from 22 September to 24 September. Tickets will be available through webtickets.co.za or at The Market theatre box office in Newtown, Johannesburg. Single-day tickets are available for R300, while a three-day pass sells for R760.