My best teacher

4th December 1998 at 00:00
My best teacher was my father, Khabi Mngoma. He was a professor of music where we grew up in Orlando in Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg. In 1969, when I was 12, he started a youth music programme in the township which became very influential, and I was one of his earliest students.

I studied violin and singing with him, before and after school and over the weekend because there was no formal music teaching in our schools. I remember having to wake up at 7am to practise the violin or have a singing lesson and I hated having to do it. Not the practice itself, just having to get up so early. Now I'm doing the same to my daughter. I make her get up to practise at 6am and I recognise the same look on her face!

I sing jazz and township music as well as the western classical tradition and one can now sit back and think about how all the influences came together. At the time you are not even aware that you are absorbing it all. My father loved classical music and he was a pianist, but his musical discipline was not totally one-dimensional. He always encouraged an interest in South African music, even though his own preference was for the western classics. He made us listen to Zulu singing. He belonged to the International Library of African Music and he used to get tapes and make us, as his students, transcribe different kinds of indigenous music.

He had a programme that tried to encompass both worlds. There wasn't much classical music in Soweto, but to me it never seemed strange to be studying music from such a different culture. There weren't many choices. You either went to a youth club and played netball or you sang in the school choir. In parts of Soweto, kids were taunted for walking around with violins and so on, but my father's programme wasn't about creating the new Paganini. It was simply to offer another outlet for young people's creativity.

I studied in my father's music school until I was 18. Then I moved to the University of Zululand to complete a music degree. It was only while at university that I could understand what it was he was trying to do and what a struggle it must have been.

When I came out of university I felt I had to try to make a difference in our society. Before that I wanted to be a nurse or a doctor but by my final year I thought that I wanted to teach music like my father. I thought I could help make up for some of the weaknesses in our educational system - there was no music teaching at all.

As it wasn't part of the curriculum I couldn't be a school music teacher, so instead I went to work for the Federated Union of Black Arts, heading their music department. I also ran a community arts project. That crystallised my beliefs and made me understand what my father had achieved. My thinking about affecting people's lives became much clearer. This was the mid-eighties when South Africa was really burning.

Many of the students I was working with listened to the radio and they wanted to create the sounds they were hearing - they wanted to be like Michael Jackson. I felt a responsibility not to dampen their ambitions but to try to redirect some of their thinking. I explained that Michael Jackson was great but that he came from a different culture. Maybe it would be better to look at what South Africa has to offer the world and develop that.

One of the crimes of apartheid was that it made people feel their culture was inferior. So, although people wanted to keep their traditional music, at the same time they felt that they shouldn't because it was backward. But I'm proud to say that many of my students have now gone on to become teachers or musicians working in the traditional field.

When I became a full-time professional singer, I no longer had much time to teach but I always remember that in everything I have done in music, my dad's teaching was the source and the root.

Sibongile Khumalo is well known on concert platforms around the world for her versatility. She has sung Brahms and Handel with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, appeared at the Royal Festival Hall singing traditional South African music and more recently displayed her ability as a jazz singer with a week's residency at Ronnie Scott's club in London's Soho. Married with three children, she lives in Johannesburg. Her latest album 'Live at the Market Theatre' is released by Sony. She was talking to Nigel Williamson.

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