Sit Back to a Soothing Sunday Remembering Late Jazz Singer Sylvia Mdunyelwa
As the years pass, so do our South African vocalists. Their loss reminds us to pause and reflect on their imprint on our souls.
We hailed Miriam Makeba as the vocalist of her generation who shaped global music sounds, showcasing the tantalizing flavour of South African music and language.
Now Ncediwe Sylvia Mdunyelwa, an accomplished vocal classicist, leaves her own generational legacy as she passed away on 25 August at 74.
Affectionately known as “Mama Kaap” in her home city of Cape Town, where she grew up in Langa township, the community known as a mecca for South African jazz.
“At the core of her music was a fierce insistence on respect for the tradition of the great American jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, as well as the traditional music of her isiXhosa-speaking community; and for the song.” — Gwen Ansell, The Conversation, 28 August 2023.
She grew up immersed in those traditions in the 50's and 60's, when music was an outlet for expressing emotions. During this time, the apartheid regime was clamping down on black political activity.
Her family was steeped in music — especially jazz.
From the age of 7, she would sing along to Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan. These divas were regular features on the family’s record player. She’d sing Ella’s signature tune Mack The Knife, despite not knowing the English words.
Although she never received formal singing lessons, her voice and presentation are spellbinding, whether in English or isiXhosa.
Her employment as a receptionist at the Space Theatre in Cape Town in the late 60s was her first step in developing her career. The theatre was a stage for politically challenging drama and for poets and music. It was here she honed her vocalist skills and grew her acting career.
The Sunday afternoon jazz sessions brought her in contact with influential mentors and musicians. By the early 70's, she was the vocalist for the regular…