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It is a coming together for Sibongile Khumalo of two very personal celebrations: 20 years of song and a tribute to her father, Khabi Mngoma, who would have celebrated his 90th birthday this year.
That’s why this trio of concerts – one in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival, followed by one at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre on July 14 and on July 28 at the Wits Great Hall in Joburg – is titled Reflect. Celebrate. Live: The University Tour.
Because of her father, who was a professor of music and taught throughout his life, she has turned this mini tour into an educational opportunity, using the concerts to mentor 12 up-and-coming choristers who were chosen in a vigorous selection process.
“We selected well,” Khumalo says proudly as she shows off the young singers.
“It’s as if we selected those who get what it’s all about.”
And after rehearsals, she has a few from the group scat with the band while she loses herself in the musical moment – that’s with a bout of flu trying to fight its way through.
“It just happens,” Khumalo says of the rhythms that have just pulsed through the room.
When you watch this songbird in action, it’s clear her spirit soars and she finds the music hard to resist.
For this concert series, she turned to the best. Director James Ngcobo will co-ordinate the production.
“It’s a complete celebration,” he says, “of composers whose music has been forgotten as well as the musical journey of someone who became Sibongile Khumalo.”
Khumalo will also be taking part in Songs of Migration, which travels to the Kennedy Center in Washington and London and Amsterdam from October.
A strong believer that this is a time to be tapping into who we are, Ngcobo is introducing two raconteurs on stage who will be relating parts of Khumalo’s life and talking about the songs, placing them in context. “But we want to… let the music speak. Anything that’s introduced has to enhance that.”
Ngcobo is humbled to be working with someone of Khumalo’s stature and appreciates that once they start the process, the singer disappears in the room. “It’s as if she’s passing the baton,” he says.
The choristers will not only benefit from the experience of performing live with the world-class mezzo-soprano: she will keep giving of her skills and knowledge to empower them way beyond the concert. Even those who didn’t get beyond the auditions benefited from a two-day workshop.
“Reflect. Celebrate. Live is my way of moving from success to significance,” says the celebrated vocalist.
“If there is anything I have learnt from my father, who spent his pension money building a studio where he spent his time teaching, it is that education is a gift that can never be taken away from you, no matter what. I want to make a difference.”
Recently, Khumalo has become aware that her father lived his life through music, while she has made a living through music.
Kutlwano Masote, who conducts the choir, has a connection with Khumalo through his family. A maternal grandmother sang in her father’s choir and his father cut his teeth in her father’s orchestra.
Masote’s training is classical, but because the concert has a jazz trio lead by Mdu Mtshali and a string quartet conducted by Samson Diamond, there is a mix of genres and this has been a novel experience.
“It’s a different language,” Masote says. But he loves the freedom of the music that contrasts with the stricter structures of classical music. “It allows you to play with the textures and colours.”
Listening to Khumalo singing a song written for her grandchild and breaking into infectious rhythms, with the choir members following her lead, singing with their voices and bodies, it’s clear that the programme will invoke nostalgia as she taps her repertoire, including such crowd favourites as Painful Joy, Untold Story and Little Girl. She will also introduce new songs.
A central theme in the show is reflection, and it is her father and mother who dominate Khumalo’s thoughts as she looks back. Her mother was someone who opened the family home to everyone.
“There was always traffic, even when we weren’t home, and she would bake scones to feed hungry mouths,” she says.
Meanwhile, her dad was the one who laid the musical foundation, who introduced her and her brother to classical instruments and the notion that anything you do has to be done well. “He taught us discipline, which is something you need if you want to succeed.”
These things, as most of us know, don’t come easily. That’s what she hopes to instil in the young musicians that come her way. She wants to pass on those traditions her father taught her.
And when you listen to her sing, all of that and more washes over and through you. Khumalo’s music is the kind that takes you on that soulful journey.
• Booking for the Cape Town and Grahamstown performances is open at Computicket. Book for the Wits concert at Strictly Tickets – www.ticket.co.za