BUSANI NGCAWENI: 'Music heals' was Sibongile Khumalo’s credo


I first met Sibongile Khumalo in my early 20s when I came to hustle in Johannesburg in May 2000. The big city was still bustling with culture at the time. The Johannesburg (now Mandela) Theatre, The Market Theatre in New Town, as well as the suburbs of Yeoville and Melville offered the best of what cultural life represented.

Of course, we lived a double life; jazz at the theatre with Khumalo et al on stage today, Oskido and Thebe on the decks in Midrand and Rosebank the next day.

The phenomenology of it all is that we kept same company as male friends/brothers but changed companions between the theatre and night clubs. Dress and drinks also changed per occasion.

Becoming acquainted with singing sisters Nokukhanya and Swazi Dlamini - who backed Mama Sibongile around the world - saw us connect with the Nightingale, Gloria Bosman, Suthukazi, Judith Sephuma, and many other jazz greats kept us rooted spiritually.

We followed them around wherever they performed in Gauteng. From time to time we crashed at the Dlaminis abode in Yeoville when not clubbing and our Melville crib became a regular place of joy with some of the artists making a turn there.

I recall a moment in 2001 when I went to her show without my girlfriend at the time, whom I had lied to saying I was travelling to Durban. I went with this beautiful Afrikaner brunette I was courting instead. As fate would have it, a picture with my happy self appeared in the weekend social scene pages of the Sowetan. I got caught and had to explain myself. She said “hawu you lied to me all because you wanted to see Sibongile with a white girl?”

That was the end: how dare she could say this about my cultural icon?

The Jozi social scenes went on deteriorate over the years, more painfully as both Melville and the Market Theatre became shadows of the past. From time to time, the Linder Auditorium, the State Theatre and few other venues host poorly marketed shows, but it’s a rarity. But the artists never tire and have always found other platforms to teach, lift our spirits and to entertain.

Over the years we connected and continued to exchange ideas. For our part, we were growing older and shedding the load of youthful things in the nightclubs. Jazz moved into the centre.

Khumalo occasionally sent messages asking why music and the arts were not central themes in the State of the Nation addresses. After President Cyril Ramaphosa's "Thuma Mina" speech, she dropped a message saying this was a good shift towards recentering the arts. She had many suggestions about what needed to happen to build arts education into the mainstream curriculum.

Well, now Mama Sibongile is gone. Gone before we could pay our debts to each other, I should confess. Since 2016 we were supposed to exchange a book (Inqolobane, which she wanted for her grandkids) and Gori- an album she sang that cannot be found anywhere. I must reach out to Sisi Brenda and deliver _Inqolobane _as promised. I may now never get hold of Gori but the glory of music continues to heal (only Mandla Mabuza from Witbank had the CD). I must also confess that the first and last CD I copied was Quest, as my mother took my copy and I couldn’t live without it. For my own biases, Credo; the Musical Testament to the Freedom Charter (2013 at Unisa) and the 2015 show Ushaka at Mandela Theatre will go down in history as her best live shows. Together with the rare to find album on Princess Magogo, she reached her zenith, politically and spiritually through these shows. But Yvonne Chaka Chaka might single out their joyful 2019 Linder Auditorium performance with the youthful opera whilst highlighting the plight of refugees.

Think about it: Credo celebrated the Freedom Charter through orchestra. There we were gazing at this great subversion - Sibongile with a white orchestra singing we will take this land back. She expropriated the eurocentrism out of the genre and communicated a resistance message using Europe’s own tools, thus stripping whiteness from classical music.

If you haven’t listened to her performance of Ushaka, you must be a deprived follower of the arts. Together with Credo, this was music’s version of Africa Fights Fight. One can only imagine her collaboration _Mbombela _with Hugh Masekela.

As she sang in her beautiful rendition of Brenda Fassie’s classic: life is going on, let the beat go on...

May she rest in power - our cultural icon, our spiritual liberator.

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni

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