Honouring Sylvia Mdunyelwa

Bulelwa Basse

We come into the world bearing gifts with which to offer our unique sense of self…

And with these gifts, we serve a higher purpose, one which will touch lives and change the environments in which we live.

Music and spoken word have – in my experience, been the pillars of social change, igniter of dreams of those who dared believe would one day come true, and the key to unlock a higher consciousness.

Jazz music has been one of those instruments which opened the minds of many township youth – not only across Africa, but the entire world, where Africa was able to connect with a global community.

And this youth emerged from Langa, Gugulethu, New Brighton – Port Elizabeth, and Soweto to name but a few communities.

Sylvia Mdunyelwa, graced Langa township, with not only her astounding beauty – but her unforgettable voice. Affectionately known as, “Mama Kaap”, she has made her name prominent beyond South African boarders.

Although she holds many accolades in the arts and culture fraternity, many do not know her humble beginnings as a receptionist at the Space Theatre in the 70s. She often jokes, that even a diva needs to learn to read and write.

“Many young people just want to be famous, but don’t want to go to school… They forget that in order to become a famous actor – you need to be able to read a script – and pay your dues.”

Slyvia Mdunyelwa performing in her own tribute concert.

She, herself, pursued acting roles in productions such as Born to Win and Freedom Road.

But her turning point was when she became part of Victor Ntoni’s Sextet in the 70s and immersed herself in collaborations with music legends such as the late Duke and Ezra Ngcukwana and Winston Mankunku.

In 1990 she performed at the Berlin Jazz Festival, and back home she performed numerous times at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

She was also invited to perform in Tokyo, Japan with the late Ezra Ngcukwana and phenomenal Feya Faku.

Mam’ Sylvia Mdunyelwa has mesmerised audiences at the North Sea Jazz festival, as she popularised iconic African songs and it is for all these reasons, I am proud to have had the opportunity to honour her at her Honouring Sylvia Mdunyelwa concert, at the Artscape Opera House on Saturday October 22.

The honourary concert was a two-night celebration, which began on Friday October 21, and was opened by recent Cultural Affairs Awards Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, saxophonist McCoy Mrubata, accompanied on stage by Hlubi Twiin and Dumza Maswana.

The Honouring Sylvia Mdunyelwa concert was a reunion of a jazz family of artists – young and old – with the arrival ofFeya Faku, to join George Werner and the Little Giants – who are celebrating 23 years of music development.

Titi Luzipo added her feminine prowess and D’Louw serenaded the audience.

As I was sitting backstage with “Mama Kaap”, I could see how much music means to her. At some point, she began to share with me how much joy singing brings her, that she is glad even when performing to only a handful of people – as long as her voice could offer healing and transformation.

My wish is that we aspire toward the preservation of the history of our legends, in the same way we seek to preserve indigenous knowledge systems: For their legacy is our heritage. And my hope is that the newly formed Sylvia Mdunyelwa Legacy Foundation will fulfil this.

I was able to go onto that stage to honour a legend, because I was armed with her history, and I’m proud to have engaged with each and every single artist who brought their presence in honour of the legend that is mam’ Sylvia Mdunyelwa.

∎ Bulelwa Basse is the founder of Beyond Talent South Africa and Legends of Our Time Foundation. She is also the founder of Lyrical Base Project and Sisters In Solidarity South Africa – respectively youth development and women-enabling organisations.