Mbabane: Even the world itself may not be a stage large enough for the immense talent he so effortlessly oozes through his craft.
Although in his 50s, the highly gifted multitalented artist who hardly looks his age cannot be labelled purely as an actor, composer or writer – pursuits that he threw himself into from a young age, with great conviction.
Mathokoza Albert Sibiya is probably one of the finest artists to have come out of this kingdom. He is a seasoned stalwart who has navigated the arts scene with precision for the longest time and who doesn’t look like he is backing down anytime soon. His contribution to the arts sector in the Kingdom of Eswatini is enough to grant him a legendary status.
He is undoubtedly one of the hardest working men, not just in the music industry but also in the film sector. It is a combination of raw charisma and humbleness that make Sibiya an exceptional person with many feathers in his cap!
He has tried his hand at pretty much most things – Chorister, Conductor, Composer, Coach, Workshop Facilitator, Adjudicator, Music Administrator, Events Manager and Movie Actor. Furthermore, Sibiya, who is well renowned for his contribution to Choral music in the Kingdom of Eswatini, first tried his hand at acting in 2005. It was impeccable reputation in music circles that he managed to land a role on the internationally acclaimed movie, ‘Wah Wah’.
Sibiya was headhunted by the film actor and producer Richard E Grant for a role in the film that was about him and his English family’s lives in Eswatini before, during and after independence. Sibiya was cast for the supporting role of the garden boy named Dozen, who could sing. Sibiya shared the screen with big names as including Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Nicholas Hoult, Miranda Richardson, Julian Wadham, John Matshikiza and many others.
His acting career has also seen him feature in another short film produced locally for Lusweti. Just last year, he landed the role of Ndabazezwe in a short drama series for Eswatini TV. He looks back reminiscently to his early days, taking us far back to the early 60s.
Recalling his childhood in Lomahasha, the firstborn of five children to John Sibiya and Gladys Masilela admits that it was marred with a fair share of good and bad moments. Largely influenced by his mother’s employer, Peter Lincoln who was one of two partners running the biggest successful sugar prepacking and exporting business in Siteki, Dyson and Lincoln (Pty) Ltd, Mathokoza was enrolled at Good Shepherd Primary School. It was at that school in 1971 when he was doing Grade 3 at the age of 7, when he was selected to sing in the infants’ choir which went on to compete at the schools’ choir competition at Mahwalala Hall during that very year.
Tragically, that would be the last time he would be involved in Choral music at that level because as he recalls at that time, there was a conflict between the teachers’ union and the government which saw interschool extracurricular activities such as choir competitions banned by government for over a decade.
“Any singing that I did thereafter would be at school assembly, during mass at school and during other big school functions,” he remembers. After completion of school, he enrolled at the University of Botswana Lesotho and Swaziland for a Diploma in Accounting and Business Studies. However, he forewent the opportunity to pursue his academic pursuits to work in order to put his siblings through school.
He looks back somewhat regrettably at his decision to opt out of university to work, adding that it was the hardest decision he had to make that would later shape the rest of his life. It was in 1982 that he decided to approach the Nuns at Mater Dolorosa Convent in Mbabane to work as a handyman in lieu of school fees and bus fares for his sister Marilyn who was schooling at Sigangeni High School at the time.
As luck would have it, after a gruelling few months into that job, there was an opening for a temporary post at the church’s primary school; Ezulwini Catholic Primary School after one staff member took maternity leave.
“The priest in charge, Father Attilio Repele, sent for him, and for three months he was a teacher at the school.
During the time with the Nuns and at the school, “I seriously considered joining the Catholic priesthood, to the point that for the three months I resided with the priests at the St. Mary’s Mission in Lobamba to study their lifestyle,” he reveals.” However, he reconsidered for pretty much the same reasons he opted out of university.
Although, he did however attempt several tertiary qualifications like Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) in 1991 and abandoned it. He also did a UKZN MBA which he also abandoned mid-year around 2003 and a Diploma in Music Education at Ngwane College which unfortunately was discontinued after the first year in 2017.
Between finishing primary school and finishing high school, Sibiya had not had the privilege of seeing the inside of a church.
However, from the time he started working for the nuns, he began attending every Sunday and weekdays, and also started attending youth meetings and this is where he met three youth who would play pivotal rules in his musical journey.
He remembers that Busisiwe Simelane, Sikhumbuzo Dlamini and Dumisani Calistus Zwane were an inseparable trio at youth gatherings.
Zwane also happened to be the church choir conductor. “From youth meeting interactions, they felt I belonged to their small group and that is how we banded together and mesmerised the youth movement,” he adds. In 1983, shortly after Sibiya had joined the Mater Dolorosa Church Choir, he went on to join the secular choir, Asihlabelele Choral Society (ACS), founded and conducted by then Dr. Hugh Donald Thabani Magagula who was a Chief Inspector of one of the divisions in the Ministry of Education.
He sang baritone in both choirs and being the youngest in ACS, he won the hearts of many and soon gained favour with the choir master due to his levelheadedness and outgoing character. The choir’s reputation grew so much that more choristers wanted to join choir from all corners of the country.
The founders decided to divide the choir into four branches: Manzini, Mbabane, Pigg’s Peak and Nhlangano, all with semi autonomy in terms of governance but with one central executive and Choir Master. Sibiya would take charge as the musical director at the ACS Mbabane branch after the passing of Joseph Myeni in 1984. “I had had enough after three weeks of non-productivity and I merely decided to do something about it. I started directing the rehearsals with such confident ignorance but I managed to get people to do something,” he further says.
He points out that fortunately the choristers were well groomed under the choirmaster-ship of the uncompromising disciplinarian, Hugh Magagula.
That made it easy for Sibiya to fumble all he needed until he could find his feet.
This brought him and Magagula 21 years his senior even closer and they became the best of friends; doing 10 o’clock teas and lunches together in Hugh’s office, Mathokoza’s office, basically everywhere, discussing choir, music and life in general. Their friendship grew to the extent that they began to visit remote branches together and Sibiya would watch and sometimes help while the maestro took his paces with the choir.
This way, Sibiya developed much faster as a tenor and conductor and became accepted as the Assistant Choirmaster, conducting some songs at concerts and other performances.
It was in the following year, 1985 that the choir entered the Roodepoort International Eisteddfod and Mathokoza was the tenor soloist in the African song, Afrika Lontshwa, composed by SJ Khosa and the choir came second.
Fast forward to 1993, Sibiya left the ACS to join the Mater Dolorosa Church where he immediately introduced transformational strategies that saw him voted Best Conductor by the then Ford Choir Competition judges. Due to personal issues, his tenure as the choir leader ended when he was asked to step down. That was the right nudge he needed to fly out of the nest in order to form his own choir. In 2002, Sweet Sounds came to being, Sweet Sounds, a choir he successfully led. That same year, Sweet Sounds took to the NCF stage and obtained overall position 3.
The following year, 2003, he and Sweet Sounds won the Eswatini NCF regional championships and proceeded to represent the country in Johannesburg at the Dome in Randburg and obtained overall position 5 out of twelve choirs mainly from South Africa. Thereafter, he went back to being in the top 3 in every competition sometimes missing the first position by half a point. From 2006 to 2008, he led Sweet Sounds to three consecutive victories of the Standard Bank Championships much to the grumbles of other choirs. Behind the scenes, Sibiya Mathokoza struggled to sustain the choir throughout the years; more often using his personal funds to finance rehearsal transportation. The choir’s financial woes resulted in missing out on competing in major competitions.
In his capacity as a prolific composer, Sibiya started composing in or about 1989 mainly as influenced and motivated by seeing and envying the works of the man he idolized so passionately, Dr. Hugh Magagula. This was during Dr. Magagula’s leave of study in the United States. Sibiya says, “I operated on the philosophy that: if he can do it, so can I”. At this point of his life, he wrote short, one page songs such as Hallelujah, UNICEF(commissioned by UNICEF) and PTA (Preferential Trade Area – a competition entry), only fit for specific performances. In his lifetime, he has written about 60 songs in SiSwati, all inspired by different influences in his life such as religion, love, culture, anger, politics, competitions and many other social events: historical, ceremonial and momentary. About 30 percent of his music is commissioned. Sibiya has often been engaged by organizations namely corporate, non-governmental or international to compose a song and perform it with his choir as part of an entity’s campaign.
He has composed songs for banks commemorating decades of their existence, such as ‘Mafavuke’ and ‘The Bank with a Heart for Swazibank’; ‘Umntjoli WemaSwati’ for the Central Bank and ‘Ukhulile SBS’ for Swaziland Building Society. Others under this category include ‘Hamba Vendle’ commissioned by the World Health organization for their campaign to eradicate polio and ‘Tikhatsi Setijikile’ for the Family Life Association of Swaziland’s birth control campaign.
According to Sibiya, most composers of his time have boasted of receiving their music in dreams or in a trance, a gift which he hasn’t enjoyed until the last two years or so where he would dream of a beautiful song only to wake up having forgotten the song or if anything, with a recollection of only a bar or two.
. On his vision in his role as a choral music practitioner and actor
Our music is beginning to penetrate the South African market –who are big users and consumers of choral music generally in the continent. On the composition front, I feel I still have to write more works in specialized styles like Oratorio and Opera in Siswati for purposes of showing off local talent; encouraging local composers and fulfilling the demand of these music styles in the local and international markets.
There is a trending and to some extent, widely accepted idea that grown up conductors cannot do the job properly so they all need to retire and give way to the youthful conductors to take the art form forward.
Firstly, my view is that singing and conducting are examples of art forms you never get too old for (akugugelwa ku conductor nekuhlabela). Some of the conductors who inspire us today died in their eighties still conducting. Secondly, there is nothing like standing in the way of the young because there is no limit to the number of conductors that can exists at any given time as long as conductors have choirs to conduct. I am one of the conductors in the country that are looking to die with a baton in my hand and maybe inspire some conductors and singers in the country and the world. So as long as I still love music the way I do now and as long as I have the strength to do it; I will endeavour to find ways to improve choral music around me and inspire all related constituencies being: secular choirs, church choirs, school choirs, the audiences, composers and kids.
Acting is an interesting story because unlike choral music and ballroom dancing which I went out to look for and joined, acting came looking for me when UK based film director Richard E. Grant excitedly approached me for a garden boy role in his Swati based movie Wah-wah. I never thought I could act but now I’d really love to produce a movie before I die. If and when opportunity avails itself I want to continue acting mostly to inspire the you generation to realize there are alternative career opportunities out there; notwithstanding the extremely low pay.
. On whether the arts industry has evolved
The arts and entertainment industry has evolved a lot since I came into the picture. In all spheres of the arts, there has been great improvement in the way they are managed and organized especially since the arrival and continued strife by the Eswatini National Council of Arts and Culture to streamline art and culture activities in the country and regulate certain aspects.
In the choral front, more and more choirs have been born and the singing standard and attitude is changing with the times. The same is true with other genres as new young artists have continued to occupy prominent spaces in the market, covering several singing styles and reasonably making it considering the favourability of the whole landscape.
The film and fashion industry have also taken center stage lately, exhibiting the finest of local talent locally and internationally. Also taking the arts and entertainment industry by storm are such successful festivals as the Bushfire, Marula and Luju, which no one in my early years in the industry could imagine there could be something like them.
. On how the year 2020 is turning out for him career-wise
Just as the year was beginning and one trying to apply fresh strategies in doing things, the covid-19 situation came and spoiled it all. Unfortunately in my line of work masses of people are the main ingredient. I work with schools; I do events; I conduct choirs and do a bit of acting if there is work and all of these are impossible in the prevailing situation. So 2020 is starting out on a wrong footing and recovery is going to take a long time.
. On his opinion of what the main challenges faced by the arts industry in Eswatini are
I could summarize the main challenges faced by the arts in Eswatini in that the size of the population is not favourable as there are much fewer people which all arts codes must share as audience against a culture where the people are still far from believing that local is good. Event owners, corporate and even government still find it ok to pay a foreign artist five times what they’d pay an equally good local artist. The truth is that it is within their right but one can’t help wondering what difference it would have made in the life of a local artist or if that amount was distributed to five local artists.
Also the fact that we are a Christian country, it is still hard for some families to accept that going out to watch a pop, choral or jazz concert is not satanic.
Then our government television station would also play a huge role in exposing the vast local talent and create opportunities for arts consumers to discover what’s on the menu. However for some reason, maybe lack of financial muscle, you find that the arts are expected to finance whatever initiatives when it’s expected to be the other way round.
The Eswatini National Council of Arts and Culture (ENCAC) is under subvented, literally making it impossible for the entity to finance the programmes of its affiliates.
. On his definition of success
Generally I can define success as the achievement of that which one sets as goals and aims to achieve at a certain time. Sometimes some achievements which add to one’s success come without having been planned. So success can also be described as the positives achieved within certain aspects of one’s life, planned or unplanned.
In our country where there is no money to compensate the efforts in the arts/entertainment industry, success can only be measured against or defined as the personal fulfilment and pride we get from doing what we love and know best. The few artists that experience a different kind of success are those that defy all odds and break into the international arena. One such artist is Nolwazi ‘Snowee’ Simelane whom I admire and respect very much for her aggression and perseverance. Unfortunately it’s not everybody who possesses those attributes and even if they did, some genres by nature cannot easily attract that kind of success.
Probably as a composer I can say I have succeeded firstly in that I’ve been able to tell the storied I wanted to tell through song and have enjoyed seeing people enjoy them through singing and listening. Secondly it’s so gratifying to see your works being admired and used in the SADC region and sometimes fetching a couple of cheques. Being recognized locally and outside the country the country as best conductor for certain performances also spell success.
. On how the government could make it easy to carry out his vision as an actor and musician
If government began to realize that our industry, given a chance, can contribute sizeably to the country’s economy. Injecting reasonable funding in the broadcasting agencies and the ENCAC would lift the arts to international standards and the resulting products sold internationally, benefitting the artists themselves and the agencies.
The construction of the new ICC at Ezulwini is probably one way that is going to enhance the running of some festivals and shows and government could subsidize the rental fees.
. On what changes in policy would create an enabling environment for the arts industry to thrive
One of the things that have enhanced the lives of artists in the world is receiving royalties in recognition of their works. We have both EBIS and Eswatini TV using artists’ works and gaining wide listenership and viewership because of their efforts. They survive because of these works, among other things; all for free and I feel it is not right.
So the first and biggest thing that I would really love to see happening in this lifetime is to see our government expeditiously implementing this common practice; pay people the royalties due to them. At least start now to pay for using artists’ works in her broadcasting agencies, then all else can follow.