Many people will associate South African jazz with the exiles that found success in Europe and the US away from the repressive apartheid regime – of the likes of Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu or the more avant players, Johnny Dyani, Chris McGregor, Dudu Pakwana or Louis Moholo.
Not all jazz musicians left South Africa during this era and subsequent generations got to see the end of apartheid. However it feels like this generation, of the likes of Sibongile Khumalo, Zim Ngqawana, Bheki Mseleku and Feya Faku, rather slip under the radar in terms of international attention.
So “Breath of Life”, Khumalo’s 8th album is my first experience of a singer who is already an established name in South Africa. She is a multi-award winning artist whose music spans indigenous South African as well as western musical forms.
It’s 7 years since her last album a delay that Khumalo puts down to practical difficulties in terms of funding and releasing an album independently and artistically to having a cohesive message to deliver.
The theme underlying the album is healing, not just on a personal level, but also in terms of relationships with others, and as an inspirational message to South Africans to come together to do better. The lyrics are written by Khumalo and co-produced with long time collaborator Mduduzo Mtshali (piano/keyboards) who, along with drummer Sabu Satsha and electric bassist Cheka Mthethwa, make up her regular trio. Additional support is provided by pianist Paul Hamner, guitarist Themba Mokoena and Khumalo’s daughter, Ayanda on backing vocals.
The result is a really strong collection of songs imbued with spirituality and inspiration. Vocally my reference points would be Carmen Lundy, Anita Baker maybe even Linda Tillery. It’s a classic style of singing influenced not only by her classical, operatic background, but also choral traditions and the jazz greats. Each word is lovingly embraced and extolled in a sophisticated and powerful (but not overpowering) way. Credit also should be given to her musicians, and in particular Mdu Mtshali, who provide the perfect melodic and rhythmic support.
The title track, “Breath of Life”, a gospel-tinged number, is also the album’s highlight for me. Inspired by a melody Khumalo created whilst trying to sing a lullaby to her grandson, the lyrics testify to her devotion. This nurturing love builds to the point it becomes wordless, spurred on by the band.
Khumalo wrote the lyrics for the gentle, township ballad “Sula Izinyembezi” (Wipe Your Tears) to compliment an original Paul Hamner composition, written about the brutal murder of his friend, McCoy Mrabata’s, daughter.
“Out of the Mist” is a wordless evocation, which serves as an opportunity to take stock and submerse yourself in Khumalo’s pitch perfect intonation.
“Warriors of Peace” is another inspirational hymn, to all of those brave enough to stand up for their convictions and seek a better world. The album is rounded off with a reading of a poem written by Don Mattera, “This Land, South of Africa” accompanied by Mtshali’s piano; a fitting statement of the love that Khumalo has for her native country.
I recently found out that Khumalo performed at last year’s London Jazz Festival alongside fellow powerhouses Gloria Bosman and Thandiswa Mazwai (who also has a jazz album coming out soon). Had I known then what I know now I would have been first in the queue.