6 March 2020
It’s International Women’s Day on Sunday and what better way to celebrate it than by paying tribute to one of Cape Town’s female singing legends, Ncediwe Sylvia Mdunyelwa.
For more than 50 years, the woman affectionately known as “Sis Nce” or “Mam Nce” to her Langa community or “Mama Kaap” to the broader Cape Town fan base, has been belting out her interpretation of jazz standards and traditional Xhosa songs.
“It’s what I do, it’s what I love sweetheart,” she says when asked about her long career, spicing her response with that term of endearment she uses so liberally in any conversation.
“Sis Nce” has many strings to her bow. With her broad experience, she is accepted as an educator in her community; she has turned her hand to acting; and she has been a radio presenter.
But it is as a singer – a jazz singer specifically – that the Langa entertainer is best known. Not surprisingly, the words “Sylvia Mdunyelwa” and “legend, icon, diva” are often used in the same sentence.
Think of any jazz gig – The Crypt, The Olympia Bakery, Artscape – and Sylvia Mdunyelwa will have headlined the bill there.
Her status as an entertainer hasn’t come easily or overnight but she did have the advantage of being raised in a family and community that was steeped in music, especially jazz.
“I was listening to the legendary Ella Fitzgerald from the age of seven years, sweetheart,” she says. “I grew up with jazz music around me. It was all about Ella, Carmen McCrae and Sarah Vaughan.
“I was singing [Ella’s signature tune] Mack The Knife, even though I did not know the English words. I was just a child and I sang just what I wanted to sing.”
Sylvia has never had any formal singing lessons but that has never been an impediment in her career. “I got it from my family and from those around me in Langa. Langa was a place of good music in those days.
She speaks glowingly about jazz bassist Victor Ntoni and her uncle Aspro Sipoyo who were leading lights in the Langa community back in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
“My first gig was at the Space Theatre in Cape Town in the early ’70s where Victor’s septet played every Sunday. That is how I started, playing with guys like Victor and Merton Barrow and Nick Carter.
“All the jazz musicians used to rehearse at the back of my home in Langa. The musicians just flocked to our place. It was like a family kind of thing, you know. My sister also was a jazz singer, that is where I got all my jazz feelings.
“I have worked with almost all of the top musicians in Cape Town. At the moment I am working with pianist George Werner, bassist Wesley Ruston and my long-time drummer “Sticks” Mrwebi.
“Back in the day I had guys like Winston Mankunku and the Ngcukana brothers Ezra and Duke, playing with me. We did all that mainstream jazz stuff and the traditional Xhosa tunes. Those were good times, sweetheart.”
Sylvia also speaks glowingly of the a capella groups that flourished in the townships, groups like the Modern Chirpers, the Harmony Jigs, the Semitones who came under the guidance of Victor Ntoni and Aspro Sipoyo.
The Mdunyelwa appeal brought her countless honours and accolades as Sis Nce’s stature grew in the community where she nurtured the up-and-coming talent.
It led to her taking a group of young musicians to the International Children’s Jazz Festival in Canada in 1990. It was followed by an Educational Opportunities Council scholarship and a chance to study at the University of California Los Angeles.
She used this opportunity to polish her skills in music and theatre that stood her in great stead later in life when she turned her talents to acting. In 1994, she was invited to tour Germany and did a spot at the Berlin Festival. This was followed by a cultural exchange program that saw her perform in Bogota, Colombia in South America in 1997.
More milestones in her career came in 1998 when she released her album African Diva, Live in Africa. It was recorded at her performances at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Grahamstown.
Her follow-up album was Ingoma (Song) in 2000 on which she had the good fortune of having one of her mentors, Victor Ntoni, as the producer. Whilst she is proud of her recording legacy, Sylvia says the whole recording industry thing has left a bitter taste in her mouth.
“I’d like to do another album but it will be a question of who can fund me, sweetheart,” she says.
“I don’t want to do it through record companies because the record companies don’t really have your interests at heart. My music is played a lot in Ireland. I was asked if I got royalties from Spotify. I got nothing from Spotify. I didn’t even know about Spotify.
“I’ll try to do it out of my own pocket. I’ll have the satisfaction of doing it my way, doing it properly, rehearsing everything, even if I have to struggle to get it done. I will produce the CDs myself and sell them myself.”
What about a government grant under Arts and Culture? “Don’t talk to me about a government grant, sweetheart . . . if we had wings, we would fly. Forget about government. They will promise you something and you’ll be dead before you get anything. When you die as a legend or diva or icon, they will come and talk at your graveside. I don’t want that.
“I need someone who can say to me: “I’ve got the funding and I’ll do justice to it. That’s all I want.”
Her contribution to the community saw her garner a Standard Bank Golden Guachupe Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 for her work in the community.
Other achievements that have peppered her long career include a role in a BBC production on the life of Bishop Desmond Tutu; she has been a presenter on Voice of Jazz on P4 Radio in Cape Town; and she is also a member of the board of Fine Music Radio, a classical/jazz station.
One highlight of her career that she does rate up there with the best of them is her chance meeting with US singer Natalie Cole.
“When Natalie Cole was in Cape Town she dined at the Green Dolphin where I was singing. I had no idea she was sitting upstairs. Her bodyguard came down and told me Natalie wanted to see me. I said, ‘Natalie Who’.
“He took me to her and she was so excited. We took pictures. She called the rhythm section from the hotel and said she had a surprise for me. Her band came in and they went on stage with her. She placed me in the front row and said, ‘you’re my sister, we all come from here. I’m very proud of you. I am going to sing for you’. The people were standing on the tables when they performed. I couldn’t believe it.”
Sylvia still has regular gigs around town and has no intention of winding back.
“If I had to live my life over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would continue my mixture of African music and jazz,” she says excitedly.
“I am planning to do an album of the old songs that were done by my siblings in a capella form. We had beautiful voices and did beautiful Xhosa songs. For instance, I do Stormy Weather and Once In A While in Xhosa. They are gems for me.
“I actually I don’t have one favourite song. They are all my favourites . . . I’ve Grown Accustomed To His Face, More Today Than Yesterday. I Gotta Be Me, What Kind of Fool Am I, because my uncle used to sing Sammy Davis songs. I’d like to sing all those songs with a big band one day.
“As a teenager I used to sing Who Can I Turn To, but I stopped singing it because when I did it, I used to cry. It used to break me.”
Sylvia is one of a handful of female jazz singers in Cape Town who have endured over the decades, but she isn’t despondent that not more young ones are making there mark in the genre.
“There are very few female jazz singers because they get into this genres like Whitney Houston or whatever. They listen to all the wrong things and they get stuck there.
“But I wouldn’t say things are better or worse now. You know, I have a passion for jazz, a passion for music and that overrides everything. My focus now is to plough all my knowledge and experience back into the younger generation, those who want to do jazz or any type of music to tell them what kind of industry we have that they learn things and have a good grounding.
Catch “Sis Nce” at The Crypt on March 13 and maybe she’ll charm you with her renditions of Lakutshon’ ilanga (When The Sun Sets) or Ntjilo Ntjilo. That’s worth the price of admission any day of the week.
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Blog Editor’s note: My thanks to Rashid Lombard for making this interview possible. Appreciate it, bro!