One of the pleasures of the 2007 Cape Town International Jazz Festival (read a review elsewhere on www.openskyjazz.com) was the special band drummer-composer-conceptualist Jack DeJohnette dubbed Intercontinental. This latest in DeJohnetteâ€™s seemingly endless well of special projects brought together musicians from four different continents: Jack and bassist Jerome Harris (U.S.), pianist
One of the more useful aspects of overseas jazz festivals is the daily artist press conferences which are all too rare at stateside festivals. The Intercontinental bandâ€™s press conference afforded Suzan Jenkins and me an opportunity to sit down with Ms. Khumalo for a conversation. Jazz in particular, and music in general in
Sibongile Khumalo is an extraordinarily versatile singer, as comfortable with Jack DeJohnette as she is in the role of Bizetâ€™s Carmen or singing Brahms Alto Rhapsody. Her discography leaps comfortably between the supposed stylistic chasms that separate jazz and European classical music, and her artistry is deeply bred in the vocal and language folkloric traditions of
Willard Jenkins: The first time we came to
Sibongile Khumalo: In 1991 Iâ€™d been doing concerts with a symphony orchestra, doing oratorios, doing recitals, but also working with a brilliant jazz guitarist who passed away a couple of years ago named Allen Kwela. Between Allen and another jazz vocalist who also passed away a year ago, I was exposed to jazz as a genre, as a potential for expression.
At some point people say â€˜â€¦and you have such a wonderful voice, whey donâ€™t you record somethingâ€¦?â€™ Iâ€™d be like â€˜what am I going to record; I just sing what I singâ€¦â€™ At that stage, early in my career, I didnâ€™t feel like I was singing anything that I felt was important simply because â€“ maybe thatâ€™s not the right word â€“ I wasnâ€™t singing things that I had been taught to sing. I was singing â€œMessiah,â€ I was singing â€œElijah,â€ some arias from operas here and thereâ€¦ But it was not something that I thought I could put down in a recording for posterity. I felt I needed to have a voice, some kind of language of my own, but I didnâ€™t know what that was.
Pop music, South African pop music â€“ the way that Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Brenda Fassi, Sipho Mabuse, and all those groups, was big as well; there was a whole circuit of festivals the same as you have jazz festivals at the moment. That also was not something that I felt I could quite speak to. So [her evolution towards jazz] kinda happened organically. I started drawing from those kinds of elements that Iâ€™d grown up with: choral music, some of the classical stuff, and I put together a show called â€œThe 3 Faces of Sibongile Khumaloâ€ in â€™92. In that program there were elements of the classical world that Iâ€™d come from, elements of the jazz that Alan and Sophie Mqina had exposed me to, and some of the traditional stuff that I grew up with in the township [Soweto].
I did bits and pieces of all of that, just doing some Bach, some of the choral work, some scat, incorporating some of the stuff from the operas on top of the improvisations that the guys were doing. It was kind of happening like that. Over the years that has kind of evolved and developed slowly, gradually. Then I sort of fell back to my comfort zone again and I started doing some of the more sort of easy on the ears sort of things with the album before the classical one, called Quest, which was drawing on some of the old South African jazz standards without going into the whole sort of stretching out â€“ just singing the music and having a good time with it.
That was until two years ago when I was challenged in a sense. Jack [DeJohnette] said â€˜Iâ€™d like to work with herâ€¦â€™ I said â€˜OK, Jack DeJohnette wants to work with meâ€¦ OK, weâ€™ll see about that.â€™ That was my attitude initially. A year ago I got this call â€˜weâ€™ve found an opportunity to get this thing going for you and Jack in March 2007 [Cape Town International Jazz Festival]. I said â€˜March is fine, its cool, its OKâ€¦â€™ Three months ago I get this call from Jack DeJohnette and I said â€˜alright, this is happeningâ€¦â€™ I had to start thinking about this; the conversations happened and we shared the music, sending each other discs and songs. I started listening and I was thinking to myself, â€˜I knew Jack DeJohnette was deep, but this is DEEP. How am I going to deal with this stuff?â€™
Iâ€™m told about
So thatâ€™s how this journey has been to this point. My approach, coming back to that long-winded answer to your question, my approach is informed really by where I come from. It was all of thatâ€¦ Whatâ€™s happening though with [Intercontinental] is that all of these things sometimes happen in a song. Before it was the classical element, itâ€™s the choral, itâ€™s the jazz bit, and itâ€™s traditionalâ€¦ sometimes in the same song everything kind of comes together.
WJ: That kind of sums up Jack’s Intercontinental Project approach.
SK: Jack describes me as an improviserâ€¦ Iâ€™ve never thought of myself in those terms. And I think itâ€™s largely when you work with people who trust you invariably you have to trust yourself. I have had to look at myself and say â€˜oh, so thereâ€™s something going on in there; what is actually going on?â€™ OK, Iâ€™ll stretch a bit more, Iâ€™ll investigate, and Iâ€™ll interrogate this a bit more. The [Intercontinental band] rehearsals have been particularly telling; I wish we had recorded some of them; theyâ€™ve just been an incredible journey of discovery for me.
WJ: In the press conference you referred to the isolation of the old days in
SK: Initially we went through a period of confusion, a period of transition which kind of manifested in a sense a sort of confusion about what it was that we needed to be saying, because prior to 1994 it was clear we saw ourselves â€“ some of us â€“ as visionaries, or as social commentators, or just being the musicians that were put there to give solace to the nation, or something like that. The message was pretty clear that we were fighting against apartheid; it was a kind of cultural activism of sorts. After â€™94 it tended to get a bit blurred, a bit confused, because suddenlyâ€¦ â€˜yeah, what are we supposed to be talking about?â€™ Some people felt guilty about singing about love, or talking about love for instance. Because if you think about a certain song, itâ€™s a love song but it talks about the order of the day because the song says â€˜When the sun sets I will come looking for youâ€¦ when the sun sets I will look for you in the prisons, in the hospitals, on the sidewalksâ€¦â€™ because thatâ€™s where you might have been dumped by the policeâ€¦ So suddenly it was like â€˜what are we supposed to be talking about [now]?â€™ So there was that transition which sort of manifested in some kind of blurred message about what we were doing.
Then when that sort of settled down, suddenly anything and everything was possible and you have young performers who sing love songs, who sing about their mothers, who sing about the children, who sing about AIDS, who perform about whatever message really grabs them, not just from a political standpoint or a social point of view where you need to deal with crime or poverty or AIDS, but to sing about personal things, to do a â€˜dear diaryâ€™ kind of thing with their music. So thatâ€™s whatâ€™s happening now, the world has opened up; our world view has opened up. And also this interaction with other people just makes you realize more that actually youâ€™re not so unique after all, you know as an artist that youâ€™re interested in the world around youâ€¦ your neighborhood, your communities yes, but you also have personal issues to deal with as an artist and thatâ€™s been happening a little more.
Suzan Jenkins: As you were talking about how you did or didnâ€™t see yourself, it makes me wonder whether you were constrained because you came up through a more classical kind of upbringing, if you were constrained by whatâ€™s notated on the paper; this is how you go about doing things then all of a sudden your brother kind of threw new music in the mix, introduced you to jazz and you started hearing more improvisation and whether or not that kind of broke those constraints â€“ â€˜hey, Iâ€™m supposed to be reading whatâ€™s on the paper but actually I know that people improvise on a theme and maybe I can do thatâ€¦â€™ Thatâ€™s just my observation and Iâ€™m wondering if youâ€™ve ever thought about that?
SK: No, the constraints came more from just being in the environment socially. The piece of paper still does put some limitations to how you think you can let yourself go. Opera for instance, youâ€™re not looking at a piece of paper but there are certain traditions which, thank God, a lot of opera singers are now challenging and breaking down because itâ€™s not just the beautiful sound that you produce as an opera singer, you need to act, you need to put another dimension to the character; thatâ€™s whatâ€™s happening to a lot of opera at the moment, so thatâ€™s one area where there used to be those kinds of constraints, but not really.
The constraints that I was referring to have to do with how apartheid manifested in the black personâ€™s mind in this country particularly; that sense of self-loathing and self-hate, and just lack of self-esteem â€“ â€˜can I actually do this, am I good enough to do this, why are they asking meâ€¦â€™ that kind of thing. Jack DeJohnette says he wants to work with me â€“ â€˜really, are you sureâ€¦â€™ And it takes awhile to get out of that and say â€˜oh yes, rightâ€¦ thereâ€™s something Iâ€™m saying here that is making sense to somebodyâ€¦â€™
I did an opera role in
WJ: But that apartheid was your reality…and not his…
SK: Thatâ€™s part of the joy, itâ€™s going to take this generation to really get [separatism] out of the way; they need to knowâ€¦ they need to learn so they donâ€™t repeat it and recycle it to other people, however we need to do it in such a way that even as we teach them about what happened, we must not teach them to be that, which is an oppressor, which is a dictatorâ€¦ And thatâ€™s the challenge, but thatâ€™s the beauty also of being in this kind of environment at this time because it just makes you so aware of the possibilities of a positive life force.
SJ: Weâ€™ve done a few radio series on South African music for WPFW in
SK: As an aspiring opera singer, in my last years of high school and university when I was considering my career options, I remember my dad â€“ who was a singer himself involved in music a lot â€“ discouraging me from following a career in opera because it would have meant leaving South Africa because there were such limited opportunities for people of color. I said â€˜but how can you say that, because thatâ€™s all I know?â€™ I want to sing, I can teachâ€¦ and I did teach, I worked as a researcher, I worked as an administrator, but essentially I wanted to sing. But [my father questioning me] was one of the first things that gave me a wake-up call about what this was. I was like a child wanting to pursue a career in music as a performer.
When I finished university, whatever decisions â€“ because I was so conscious about what was happening around, virtually all of the decisions I made about what I needed to do were politically-driven decisions rather than just career-related decisions. There was no way I was going to teach in a normal primary school because that was government [controlled], but when the opportunity came to teach, or rather when the thought came to teach, I ended up working in community arts centers where the money was erratic, you didnâ€™t know whether you were going to get paid at the end of the month or not because we depended upon sponsorships and donations. You couldnâ€™t even plan three months ahead, you were just there being present in that moment to do what you needed to do.
If you went and performed somewhere out of
As a woman Iâ€™ve been very luck I suppose in that Iâ€™ve always worked with guys who saw me first as a musician and not as a woman. Iâ€™ve heard stories of female colleagues whoâ€™ve been subjected to all kinds of unwelcome sexual overtures from their [male] colleagues and for whatever reason I have not had that. I see the music first, I see you as my equal, as my colleague, as somebody whoâ€™s out there to do what we all have to do equally and whenever thereâ€™s been somebody whoâ€™s got funny intentions I have a way of looking at people and its like â€˜so what is your problemâ€™ [laughs]. Iâ€™ve been very fortunate [laughs]. But I know of women whoâ€™ve had to contend with rubbish like that and itâ€™s hard.
I think part of it for me personally has been the fact that I always describe my father as the first feminist I ever knew. It was just his attitude to women that he expected me to pull my weight like everybody else. He expected me to be better than my brother. I donâ€™t expect to be treated differently because Iâ€™m a girl; I pull my weight like everybody else. People forget sometimes that Iâ€™m a woman, weâ€™re there, and weâ€™re doing the work that needs to be done.