Sibongile Khumalo, South Africa’s ‘First Lady of Song,’ Dies at 63
Sibongile Khumalo, a virtuoso singer whose freedom of movement between opera, jazz and South African pop music made her a symbol of the country’s new social order after the end of apartheid, died on Thursday. She was 63 years old.
Her family wrote on Instagram that the cause was complications from a stroke and that she had suffered a long illness. The Post did not say where she died.
Ms. Khumalo’s voice was brisk and precise over a wide vocal range, but particularly elegant in the upper register. She had the hall-filling power of a mezzo-soprano and the directness of a pop singer. After making her debut as Carmen in a Durban production, she was highly regarded for her roles in South African operas and plays, including UShaka KaSenzangakhona, Princess Magogo KaDinuzulu and Gorée, all of which toured internationally.
At home she was equally known for her catchy original compositions and her interpretations of South African jazz standards such as the straight-line hymn “Yakhal ‘Inkomo” by saxophonist Winston Ngozi, which became a calling card.
When the apartheid government fell and Nelson Mandela became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1994, Ms. Khumalo performed at his inauguration. Mandela famously referred to her as the country’s “First Lady of Song”, and the title was retained.
The next year, when South Africa went to the Rugby World Cup – a moment of national reconciliation that was later immortalized in the film “Invictus” – Ms. Khumalo was invited to perform the national anthem of both her home country and that of her opponent New Zealand. It was “the only time I’ve ever seen a rugby match, no matter what level, whatever level,” she said with a laugh to a television interviewer in 2017.
In 1996 Sony released their debut album “Ancient Evenings” which contained a number of originals and loosely adhered to a vocal-driven South African pop style. Over the next two decades she released a steady stream of albums and received four South African Music Awards. She received three Vita Awards for her stage appearances.
In 2008 she received the Ikhamanga Order in Silver, one of the highest awards in the country for contributions to the arts.
Sibongile Mngoma was born on September 24, 1957 in Soweto to Grace and Khabi Mngoma. Her mother was one Nurse; Her father was a scholar and musician who helped found the music department at Zululand University.
Sibongile began studying with Emily Motsieloa, a respected local music teacher, at the age of 8, focusing on the violin. She was heavily influenced by the music of local healers and preachers in the nearby church, as well as the Western classical and pop records her parents played in the house.
She also inherited her father’s passion for education, earning a bachelor’s degree in both Zululand and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She later received honorary doctorates from Zululand, Rhodes University and the University of South Africa.
She taught in Zululand, but also looked for ways to reach children who did not have access to important facilities. She has held teaching and administrative positions at the Federated Union of the Black Artists Academy in Johannesburg and at the Madimba Institute of African Music in Soweto.
Ms. Khumalo’s husband, the actor and director Siphiwe Khumalo, died in 2005. The couple had two children, Ayanda and Tshepo Khumalo. A full list of survivors was not immediately available.
In 1993 she won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award at the famous Grahamstown National Arts Festival and her star rose rapidly. She had already started turning her head with a concert program entitled “The 3 Faces of Sibongile Khumalo”, which demonstrated her versatility across genres. These “faces” were jazz, opera and traditional South African music.
When Ms. Khumalo was a girl, her father had brought her to live with Constance Magogo kaDinuzulu, a Zulu princess and musician known for her skills as a singer and composer. “My father made me sit at her feet to play and sing her ugubhu,” Ms. Khumalo wrote in the notes on her self-titled 2005 album, referring to a Zulu string instrument. “I thought he was very unkind to me because all the other children were playing outside in the yard.”
Decades later, she leveraged the experience when she worked with scholar Mzilikazi Khumalo (no relationship) to create “Princess Magogo KaDinuzulu,” which was billed as the first Zulu opera and focused on the princess’s own compositions. “It must have been fate,” she said. “In my professional years, music came back and it started to make sense.”
When “Princess Magogo KaDinuzulu” traveled to the USA in 2004, Anne Midgette checked this for the New York Times and praised Ms. Khumalo’s “talent and versatility”. Ten years after South Africa’s democratic rule, according to Ms. Midgette, Ms. Khumalo appeared to be “a symbol of his new culture”.
In an interview in 2019 prior to her performance at the Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg, Ms. Khumalo said that regardless of symbolism, her main concern was the singularity of her own voice. “As you expose yourself and open yourself to what’s out there, it’s also important to be true to yourself so that you can maintain an identity that clearly defines you even when you let others influence you,” she said .
Whatever the subject, she added, “It is the truth in what you express and how you express it, that is paramount.”