Sylvia Ncediwe Mdunyelwa was born in the township of Langa in Cape Town. Mdunyelwa started her singing career in the 1970s when she joined Victor Ntoni’s sextet. She worked alongside other leading Cape Town Jazz musicians amongst who were the Ngucakana brothers, Ezra and Duke Ngcukana, Winston Mankunku, Nick Carter, and Merton Barrow.
She became involved in developing talent of young and aspiring musicians. In 1990 she took a group of young musicians to the International Children’s Jazz Festival in Canada. On her return she was awarded a scholarship by the Educational Opportunities Council, and subsequently went to study at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). She used this opportunity to polish her skills in music and theatre.
Upon her return, she was invited to tour Germany where she performed at the Berlin Festival in 1994. She was later part of a cultural exchange programme where she went to Bogota, Colombia in South America to perform in 1997. The following year (1998) she released her album African Diva, Live in Africa which focused on her performances at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Grahamstown. In 1999 Mdunyelwa got a contract with Blue Note and in 2000 recorded her first studio album Ingoma (Song) which was produced by Victor Ntoni.
Mdunyelwa was awarded the ‘Golden Guachupe’ award in recognition for her community work in Cape Town. She became part of the BBC production of the life of Bishop Desmond Tutu. She presents Voice of Jazz, a programme on P4 Radio, a Cape Town radio station. She is also a member of the board of Fine Music Radio, a classical jazz station in Cape Town.
In her own words “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 – to touch lives and change the environments in which we live. Music and the Spoken Word have – in my experience – been the pillars of social change, igniters of dreams of those who dared believe would one day come true, and the key to unlocking a higher consciousness.”
Artscape had the opportunity to honour her at her Honouring Sylvia Mdunyelwa concert at Artscape Opera House on Saturday, October 22, 2022.
It was a two-night celebration which began on Friday, October 21, and 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 elevated by a strong audience turnout and an engaging hosting of the night’s proceedings by yours truly, as I introduced the legendary musicians who honoured “Mama Kaap”. It was a reunion of a jazz family of artists – young and old – with Feya Faku joining George Werner and the Little Giants, who are celebrating 23 years of music development.
Titi Luzipo added her feminine prowess, and D’Louw – former Prophets of the City group member – serenaded the audience until it was weak in the knees in honour of “Mama Kaap”.
It was an evening of remembrance, historical education, cultural inculcation, and linguistic offerings through my Spoken Word which I had carefully etched to speak of the legacy that is mam’ Sylvia Mdunyelwa.