This intriguing, if frustrating concert featured three great South African divas who all skilfully mix township styles with jazz, though none have achieved anything like the international celebrity of the late Miriam Makeba. This London jazz festival gig was a chance to allow them greater exposure, but its revue format didn’t quite do them justice.
Which was unfortunate, because the headliner Sibongile Khumalo has an extraordinary musical range. She’s a classical mezzo-soprano, as well as a great jazz vocalist and interpreter of African songs – she sang at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration. Although making an all too rare London appearance, she shared the stage from the start with Gloria Bosman and the rousing Thandiswa Mazwai. It was a fine gesture, but didn’t allow her enough time to show why she is so special.
The trio began with a delicate a cappella treatment of Hlanganania, a glorious reminder of South Africa’s harmony tradition. Khumalo then performed a single easy-going ballad, backed by her impressive jazz trio, before handing over to her guests. Returning later, she hinted at her operatic skills and was at her best with the extraordinary new Grace and Mercy. Driven on by pianist Mduduzi Mtshali, she switched from a slow lament to an exhilarating section in which she put down the microphone and still dominated the hall with the power of her singing.
Elsewhere, there were stirring solos from Bosman and a remarkable performance from Thandiswa, the youngest of the trio. She’s a dynamic performer who has worked with Paul Simon and Africa Express, and here mixed township ballads with a furious scat work-out. The audience were on their feet for the stirring finale of Mayibuye, but it wasn’t enough. Khumalo deserves a full show to demonstrate her range – and so does Thandiswa.