Legendary classical and jazz singer, Sibongile Khumalo died yesterday after suffering a stroke. She was 63. Family spokesperson, Bandile Mngoma confirmed her death in an interview with the SABC.
“She had not been well and had been in and out of hospital. She suffered complications from a stroke. We had not been able to see her in hospital due to Covid-19 protocols and it has been hard. Her death is not Covid related. She suffered a stroke,” said Mngoma.
Mngoma said Khumalo was a confidante to many of her friends and family members but also had a lighter, fun side to her when she was among the people she loved.
“She was proud of her culture. To us, she was a gogo we consulted and confided in. She was a lady of music but at home, she was a mean cook, a storyteller. She had stories for days, a hearty laugh and a wicked sense of humour,” said Mngoma.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that she played the violin and played it very well. She understood music well – beyond just lyrics. She was very strong on indigenous music,” said a family friend, Kutlwano Masote.
Often referred to as the “First Lady of Song”, Khumalo’s music journey started at age eight, where she studied the violin, singing, drama and dance under Emily Motsieloa. Growing up, she was exposed to music of heavyweights like Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba, Roberta Flack, Jimmy Hendricks, Carly Simon and Janis Joplin, among others.
By the age of 14, she was determined to fulfil her dream of becoming an opera singer despite there being no opportunities for black people in South Africa. She ended up studying her Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in music from the University of Zululand and pursued a career teaching music.
The Soweto-born icon obtained her BA Honours from the University of Witwatersrand and was also awarded honorary doctorates from the University of South Africa as well as the University of Zululand. In 1993, she walked away with the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music honours. She also bagged four South African Music Awards for her light music and jazz recordings and three FNB Vita Awards for her opera and concert work.
Mama Sibongile’s hits such as ’Mayihlome’ and ’Thula Mama’ are some of the tracks that dominated music charts for a long time.
According to The College Music Society, her most notable performances were: The 3 Faces of Sibongile Khumalo (Kippies, Johannesburg 1992); Sibongile Khumalo in Concert (Grahamstown Festival, Market Theatre – Johannesburg, and Baxter Theatre – Cape Town 1993); performances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Johannesburg and Cape Town 1994 and 1995); the Brahms Alto Rhapsody (Johannesburg City Hall 1994 and Durban City Hall 1996); Sisters in Synch with Aviva Pelham (Civic Theatre – Johannesburg and Grahamstown Festival 1994); Rhythms of Africa with the National Symphony Orchestra (Sun City, Durban and Johannesburg 1994); Handel’s Messiah with Lord Yehudi Menuhin (Cape Town and Johannesburg 1995); Sibongile Khumalo and Friends (Johannesburg 1995).
Her career highlights include performing at Nelson Mandela’s 75th birthday as well as at the historic 1995 World Cup Rugby final. She was also awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in silver by the Presidency for her excellent contribution to the development of South African art and culture in the musical fields of jazz and opera.
The African National Congress (ANC) said it is “deeply saddened” by the untimely passing Khumalo.
“Her decades-long singing career has touched the hearts of thousands of fans across South Africa and beyond. She has performed with many celebrated groups and artists and has graced many occasions, including former president Nelson Mandela’s 75th birthday and 1994 inauguration. She also led the South African and New Zealand national anthems at the World Cup rugby final in 1995,” said ANC national spokesperson, Pule Mabe.
“We join the nation in paying tribute to this music legend who became a beacon of hope and who inspired many artists and individuals in our country. We extend our deepest condolences to her family, friends and fans. May they find solace in knowing that their loss is the nation’s loss,”
Tributes have been pouring in, including on social media, for the Sowetan-born beloved jazz icon, whose dazzling career started out as a music teacher who dreamt of becoming an opera singer.