Sibongile Khumalo




One of the pleasures of the 2007 Cape Town International Jazz Festival (read a review elsewhere on was the special band drummer-composer-conceptualist Jack DeJohnette dubbed Intercontinental.  This latest in DeJohnette’s seemingly endless well of special projects brought together musicians from four different continents: Jack and bassist Jerome Harris (U.S.), pianist Danilo Perez (Panama), saxophonist Jason Yarde and trumpeter Byron Wallen (U.K.), and most auspiciously the thrilling multi-octave South African vocalist Sibongile Khumalo (pron. See-Bon-Geelay Koo-mah-lo).


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 band’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 South Africa is as broad and rich as anyplace on the African continent.


Sibongile Khumalo is an extraordinarily versatile singer, as comfortable with Jack DeJohnette as she is in the role of Bizet’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 South Africa .  Its time the world woke up to the vocal force of nature known as Sibongile Khumalo.  Among other things she shared some fascinating insights into the unique challenges South African artists face in making their work post-apartheid.


Willard Jenkins: The first time we came to Cape Town for the festival, in 2005, we heard a lot of exceptional South African instrumentalists, but I was curious about the vocal side.  It was recommended that I had to get some of your recordings.  At the CD Warehouse (now known as Musica) store on the Cape Town waterfront I found the jazz record you made at the Market Theatre, then subsequently I ordered one of your classical discs from Sterns music.  Duke Ellington described Ella Fitzgerald as being “beyond category.”  It’s obvious that you’re beyond category as well.  Talk about the broadness of your approach to music.


Sibongile Khumalo: In 1991 I’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 ‘…and you have such a wonderful voice, whey don’t you record something…?’  I’d be like ‘what am I going to record; I just sing what I sing…’  At that stage, early in my career, I didn’t feel like I was singing anything that I felt was important simply because – maybe that’s not the right word – I wasn’t singing things that I had been taught to sing.  I was singing “Messiah,” I was singing “Elijah,” some arias from operas here and there…  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 didn’t know what that was.


Pop music, South African pop music – 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 I’d grown up with: choral music, some of the classical stuff, and I put together a show called “The 3 Faces of Sibongile Khumalo” in ’92.  In that program there were elements of the classical world that I’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 – 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 ‘I’d like to work with her…’  I said ‘OK, Jack DeJohnette wants to work with me… OK, we’ll see about that.’  That was my attitude initially.  A year ago I got this call ‘we’ve found an opportunity to get this thing going for you and Jack in March 2007 [Cape Town International Jazz Festival].  I said ‘March is fine, its cool, its OK…’  Three months ago I get this call from Jack DeJohnette and I said ‘alright, this is happening…’  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, ‘I knew Jack DeJohnette was deep, but this is DEEP.  How am I going to deal with this stuff?’


I’m told about Danilo Perez , I’m told about Jerome Harris… Jason [Yarde] I’d met and worked with in the U.K. a few times, Byron [Wallen] I was aware of but not too closely.  So I’m thinking ‘OK…’  I talked to people here and told them Jack DeJohnette… this is really happening!  So I was asked the question ‘well, who’s in the band?’  I said “the pianist is a guy called Danilo Perez , and Jerome Harris…”  They said ‘who…?’  I said ‘ Danilo Perez …’  My son in particular… I told him I’d listened to [Danilo]’s music, he’s such a beautiful player…’  My son said ‘he’s a what…?  Ma, do you hear yourself?’  I said Danilo sounds good, he’s very nice actually…’  My son said ‘Ma, he’s awesome… he’s an awesome musician… are you listening?  I said ‘yeah, OK, he’s great, sure…’


So that’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 that…  What’s happening though with [Intercontinental] is that all of these things sometimes happen in a song.  Before it was the classical element, it’s the choral, it’s the jazz bit, and it’s traditional… 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 improviser…  I’ve never thought of myself in those terms.  And I think it’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 ‘oh, so there’s something going on in there; what is actually going on?’  OK, I’ll stretch a bit more, I’ll investigate, and I’ll interrogate this a bit more.  The [Intercontinental band] rehearsals have been particularly telling; I wish we had recorded some of them; they’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 South Africa under apartheid, pre-1994 democracy, creating kind of an inward viewpoint, musically speaking.  What do you think that meant for South African music and musicians once this new democracy opened up new opportunities?


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 – some of us – 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 ’94 it tended to get a bit blurred, a bit confused, because suddenly… ‘yeah, what are we supposed to be talking about?’  Some people felt guilty about singing about love, or talking about love for instance.  Because if you think about a certain song, it’s a love song but it talks about the order of the day because the song says ‘When the sun sets I will come looking for you… when the sun sets I will look for you in the prisons, in the hospitals, on the sidewalks…’ because that’s where you might have been dumped by the police…  So suddenly it was like ‘what are we supposed to be talking about [now]?’  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 ‘dear diary’ kind of thing with their music.  So that’s what’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 you’re not so unique after all, you know as an artist that you’re interested in the world around you… your neighborhood, your communities yes, but you also have personal issues to deal with as an artist and that’s been happening a little more.


Suzan Jenkins: As you were talking about how you did or didn’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 what’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 – ‘hey, I’m supposed to be reading what’s on the paper but actually I know that people improvise on a theme and maybe I can do that…’  That’s just my observation and I’m wondering if you’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, you’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 it’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; that’s what’s happening to a lot of opera at the moment, so that’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 person’s mind in this country particularly; that sense of self-loathing and self-hate, and just lack of self-esteem – ‘can I actually do this, am I good enough to do this, why are they asking me…’ that kind of thing.  Jack DeJohnette says he wants to work with me – ‘really, are you sure…’  And it takes awhile to get out of that and say ‘oh yes, right… there’s something I’m saying here that is making sense to somebody…’ 

I did an opera role in Oslo about three years ago and one of the guys in the chorus said to me ‘you actually don’t know how good you are, do you?’  Even as recently as 3 years ago there was still the sense that ‘I’m just a little South African girl; please don’t ask me to…’  Yeah, it still happens and one has to constantly work against that self-battering, like a typical abused person.  One of the things I learned a few months ago was to change the story in your head all the time, be constantly speaking up to yourself rather than down, and it’s working.  And also being about to have fun with it besides the risk-taking and just being a way of not putting yourself into those little boxes and being insecure and unsure and thinking ‘what do they see in me?’  Being able to say ‘you have something to say… it’s not right or wrong, it is what it is, so accept that, embrace that, go with it, move forward with it…’  That’s the kind of boxed-in sense, those kinds of constraints as you refer to them that continue to be a challenge for this country that will be for this generation at least.  Our children fortunately didn’t have to deal with apartheid the way we did.  My daughter knows what happened in ’76 from the history books but my 16-year old is like ‘yeah, OK, so it happened, so am I supposed to carry your baggage for you [laughs] kind of thing…’


WJ: But that apartheid was your reality…and not his… 


SK: That’s part of the joy, it’s going to take this generation to really get [separatism] out of the way; they need to know… they need to learn so they don’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 dictator…  And that’s the challenge, but that’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: We’ve done a few radio series on South African music for WPFW in Washington , DC .  As we talk about the music the thing that continually hits me is the spirit of possibility.  Right now you just talked about oppression.  The word oppression doesn’t even begin to describe what was happening during apartheid but there’s always been this incredible spirit of possibility and hope in South Africa .  As a musician, an activist, a woman, a vocalist… can you give me some clue as to how that continued to happen even in the darkest of times… and how it happens now?


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 – who was a singer himself involved in music a lot – 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 ‘but how can you say that, because that’s all I know?’   I want to sing, I can teach… 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 – 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 didn’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 couldn’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 Johannesburg and had to drive there you had to go on the road.  Now they have these one-stop places on the road and you can go to a Wimpy’s and sit down and eat.  Back [during apartheid] they had these little shops on the road run by Afrikaners, they had a little window around the back and that’s where you bought your food, that greasy bacon & egg sandwich with a cold polystyrene cup of coffee… things like that.  If you needed a toilet you were lucky if you got one, and you would get to your destination that evening and have to perform and give joy to your audience.  They don’t know… yes they know that your travel may have been rough, but they didn’t pay that attention, they wanted to be entertained, they wanted to have a good time…  So its things like that.


As a woman I’ve been very luck I suppose in that I’ve always worked with guys who saw me first as a musician and not as a woman.  I’ve heard stories of female colleagues who’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 who’s out there to do what we all have to do equally and whenever there’s been somebody who’s got funny intentions I have a way of looking at people and its like ‘so what is your problem’ [laughs].  I’ve been very fortunate [laughs].  But I know of women who’ve had to contend with rubbish like that and it’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 don’t expect to be treated differently because I’m a girl; I pull my weight like everybody else.  People forget sometimes that I’m a woman, we’re there, and we’re doing the work that needs to be done.







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