Following the release of her sixth album, Sibongile Khumalo spoke to Helen Herimbi about the land, love and lullabies.


I pass Sibongile Khumalo my glass of granita and she winces at the taste. The waitress and I try to describe the great properties of the drink to her, but she isn’t sold. When her rooibos – in a cute black kettle – is set in front of her, she squeals with delight.

It’s clear in that action and in her new album, Breath of Life, that the veteran mezzo-soprano is comfortable standing in her own truth. Produced (for her Magnolia Vision Records independent imprint) by Khumalo and co-produced by Mdu Mtshali, the album is a nine-track marvel that explores healing, grace, intercession and a grandmother’s love.

The title track is particularly interesting because on first listen, I took the song to be the story of a woman’s acquiescence to a romantic love she wasn’t expecting. However, with an opening line that says: When the story came that you were on your way/it was news that I would rather not have heard, it was actually about her grandson.

“I wasn’t looking for a grandchild to come into my life at that time,” Khumalo pokes her tongue out at her (artist) daughter who is sitting nearby.

She continues: “That’s an interesting analysis because it was a love moment. Being in love with this child that was in my arms that I was trying to comfort, but just wouldn’t be comforted.

“I was trying to remember these lullabies,” she stares at the ceiling. “Then this melody just insinuated itself into my mind. And he responded to it. Eventually, he fell asleep. That same night, I recorded it on my phone. When I next met Mdu, I told him there was this melody that happened to me and this is what it sounds like. Mdu changed it to what you hear today.”

As with this song, others on this album have happened to the singer and songwriter in unconventional ways.

Out of the Mist came about when an annoyed Khumalo was given sudden clarity on a matter by a misty patch mysteriously clearing while travelling.

Sula Izinyembezi happened after listening to pianist, Paul Hanmer, talk about the murdered daughter of his friend and saxophonist, McCoy Mrubata. Hanmer had composed The White Sand of the Flats as a response to the tragedy and Khumalo was moved by it.

“When (Hanmer) describes the experience of being at the scene of this crime with McCoy and various other things he told me, I started thinking, ‘so here I am, a mother of a girl child who dies like that and I’m supposed to be in that space. How does that make me feel?’

“I was trying to capture the emotions that I was engulfed by as I thought about Paul’s description of the situation. So I’m saying us, the givers of life, (must) intercede on everyone’s behalf because our children cannot keep dying like this.”

Rebirth and healing are major common threads in songs on this album. The Call and This Land, South Africa place particular emphasis on the land and the nation. Wearing a beret with beadwork that makes it look like a traditional Zulu hat, this artist is a patriot and realist.

She explains the messages of the songs: “We work for unity, harmony, education, progress. Ultimately, this is about if we don’t make this country and continent work… it’s become a clichéd expression now, but history will judge us harshly.

“You know, Bra Hugh (Masekela) always says: ‘One day our children might end up saying: ‘We are told we were once Africans’. Every time I hear him say it, it hurts.”

Later, she tells me that she had a choice of performing two Don Mattera poems. She reads Mattera’s This Land, South Africa to close the album.

“It’s how he approaches issues of love beyond the physical,” Khumalo smiles. “When you talk about healing the land, the nation, the streams and things like that, to me, it’s an assertion of love for the land, for your people, for all things great and beautiful. At the time of the recording, that was what was occupying my mind a lot.”

With albums like the acclaimed Ancient Evenings (1996), Immortal Secrets (2000), Quest (2002), the eponymous 2006 offering as well as her live albums, Khumalo has become the South African equivalent to what Toni Morrison has been called: the conscience of her nation.

Using her phone to record song ideas as they come and then performing them for a while before they are committed to CD, this artist is often reflective. “For me, a recording is almost like a journal entry,” she says.