• The Editors of Liberty Report

Jazz Singer, Sibongile Khumalo, Is Laid to Rest

Article by Khanyi Mahlangu


The 28th January 2021 marked the passing of the illustrious virtuoso-musician, Sibongile Khumalo, who died at the age of 63. 2020 was an arduous year for the entire world and many of us had our hopes set on 2021 being a more prosperous year. However, the passing of South Africa’s ‘First Lady of Song’ has dampened our spirits. Though we mourn this musical pioneer’s death, let us also celebrate her legacy and her insurmountable accomplishments in a bid to uplift ourselves and honour this musical icon. Not only was she praised for her incredible musicianship, but she was also a significant player in the development of music education in South Africa.


(Briefly, 2020).


Khumalo was born on the 24th of September 1957 in Orlando West, Soweto. Though there is not much known about her mother, Grace Mngoma, Khumalo’s father, Khabi Mngoma (1922-1999) played an integral role in Khumalo’s passion for music. Mngoma was a professor of music at the University of Zululand (UNIZULU) and contributed to the establishment of the Music Department at UNIZULU in 1975. He was a highly decorated industry player with many accolades under his belt, so it seems only natural that his daughter would follow in his footsteps and take the South African music industry by its horns.


Khumalo began her pursuit of music at the early age of 8 years old and went on to study at UNIZULU where she attained a Bachelor of Arts (BA). Her second BA (with Honours), was procured from the University of the Witwatersrand, alongside a Postgraduate Diploma from the Wits Business School in Personnel Management. She later taught at UNIZULU as well as the Madimba Institute of African Music. She also became the Head of the Music Department at the Federated Union of Black Arts and was the Arts Centre co-ordinator at the FUNDA Centre.


Khumalo later received a Doctor of Music from Rhodes University, an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy from UNIZULU and an honorary Doctor of Musicology from the University of South Africa.


Khumalo became an icon and household name amongst South Africans. Her versatility and diversions between popular South African music, Opera and Jazz styles made her music accessible to people of different tastes and cultures. She was a virtuoso vocalist with a sweeping vocal range that was particularly elegant in her higher register, which was beautifully showcased in many of her operatic performances. Khumalo has earned wide praise for her performances in various South African operas and plays, one in which she made her debut playing the role of Carmen in the Durban production, Carmen. She also performed internationally at the HetMuzik Theatre in Amsterdam, the Royal Festival Hall, Barbican Centre, Royal Albert Hall, and Kennedy Centre.


Khumalo was present during some of the country’s most prolific historical moments to share her gift and spread hope and joy through her talent. In 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president after the fall of the Apartheid government, Khumalo was asked to perform at Mandela’s inauguration. Mandela referred to her as South Africa’s ‘first lady of song’, and it is a tile that has persisted since. She was also invited to the Rugby World Cup, to perform the national anthem of both South Africa and New Zealand.


Her debut album, Ancient Evenings, was released in 1996 and it comprises African, Global, and vocal Jazz styles throughout. The album fully encompasses what she represented as an artist: effortless and fluid transitions between a variety of genres and music that was authentic and full of soul. Her music touched the hearts of many. Khumalo had the ability to take listeners on a journey and relay stories of the South African experience which made her music even more special to South Africans, because they could relate to the stories and experiences she sang about. A lot of her music was an ode to her fellow South Africans and in her song, ‘Untold Stories’, she sings about the many struggles black South Africans face and the hardships and feelings that they experience. Her music reflected her belief in making true art – art that has a message of truth – stated in an interview, “It is the truth in what you express and how you express it that is paramount.”


In March 2007, Khumalo established the Khabi Mngoma Foundation named after her father (Khabi Mngoma). Her intention was to raise funds for the Khongisa Academy for the Performing Arts, which her father created. She also wanted to raise funds to support talented individuals by providing them with scholarships in arts and culture. In recognition and appreciation of her contributions to the development of South Africa’s arts and culture departments, she was awarded Silver class of the Order of Ikhamanga (OIS) in 2008. The Order of Ikhamanga is a “South African honour and is granted by the President of South Africa for achievements in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sports.”


Khumalo was an artist who attained global recognition for her versatility and talents. And though she had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other musicians and recording labels, Khumalo stayed true to herself and remained rooted in her African heritage. She said in an interview, “While exposing yourself and opening yourself up to what is out there, it is also important to remain true to yourself, so that even when you allow yourself to be influenced by others, you retain an identity that clearly defines you.”

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