We have no idea what we have just lost. None. Prolific singer, composer and educator Gloria Bosman, who passed away on 14 March 2023, was someone I could only describe as South Africa’s most interactive artistic archive. Interactive not because she housed so much knowledge about the unique relationship between music and South Africans as a people, but also because she transmitted this knowledge to others at every opportunity. If you ever found yourself in the same room with Gloria, you were in for a lesson of a lifetime.
As a trained jazz vocalist, songwriter and senior lecturer, I have been preoccupied with studying women in the South African jazz tradition. I was at first reluctant to write about Gloria as I didn’t consider her and I to have been “close”. I’ve only ever written about South African musician and activist Miriam Makeba as a lifelong subject of my research, as well as South African singer and cultural activist Sibongile Khumalo, who was a mother to me. Perhaps I lack the range to write about others, I told myself. But a friend and colleague convinced me when she said, “You may not have been close, but you were there.” This I could not deny: I was witness to Gloria’s life and work.
Read more: Gloria Bosman was more than a South African jazz vocalist, she was a guiding light
Besides being vocalists, we shared something else in common. We had a deep and close relationship with the late Sibongile Khumalo, who always affectionately referred to Gloria by her Xhosa name, uNosikhumbuzo. I didn’t do this as it would have been over-familiar.
Gloria Bosman was the quintessential example of artistic diversity, not only in the multiplicity of genres she performed in but in her uncanny ability to transform any space or gathering into a teaching moment.
In my days as a young jazz singing student, Gloria’s album Stop and Think (2002) was a staple of my study recordings at a time when South African repertoire was not largely prescribed in the academic programme. This album – alongside Khumalo’s Live at the Market Theatre (1998) and South African jazz singer Judith Sephuma’s A Cry, A Smile, A Dance (2001) – served as profound entry points to the unique attributes of South African jazz singing. I was struck by Gloria’s impeccable intonation and a voice I was convinced had never met a wrong note.
Gloria was trained as an opera singer at the Tshwane University of Technology from 1994 to 1996. Her voice had a husk that glided effortlessly over the blues characterised by her cheeky style of diction. She was a marvel to listen to. Her vocal range was one every jazz singer dreams of, one that transitions between registers without so much as a crackle. She could sing everything. It was no wonder she moved between jazz, pop, rock, classical, cabaret and gospel with ease. She meticulously applied appropriate vocal techniques to the different styles of music with a level of detail only a craftsman could execute.
Over the years, Gloria and I often interacted at jazz festivals and other industry events. We sat together on judging panels at music competitions and shared many moments of banter underscored by good wine and live music. She was genuine by nature, quick to praise and slow to criticise.
Read more: The deep humanity of Sibongile Khumalo, South Africa's iconic vocalist – and mentor
And she spoke her mind. In 2021, in a discussion hosted by International Jazz Day South Africa to commemorate Human Rights Day, Gloria was one of the panellists. In response to a question around preparing for the talk, she said: “You cannot prepare the truth.” It was in this webinar that she emphasised the importance of black people writing not only about themselves but about each other. She lambasted the notion of “travellers” writing about places they’ve only just passed through.
As tough and boisterous as she could be, Gloria also had a soft shell. After performing at Khumalo’s funeral, she collapsed in my arms and wept. This moment revealed her humanness.
In the academy
In 2021, Gloria enrolled at the University of Cape Town’s South African College of Music to study jazz. She vehemently declined to start at postgraduate level, which she could have done because she had already studied music and had an expansive artistic footprint both locally and internationally.
I had the honour of teaching her jazz improvisation in a class where most if not all her classmates were less than half her age. They all adored her. Carly Barendilla said: “Gloria will never understand the impact she’s had in my life. She encouraged me and reminded me that there’s a space for me in this world.” Fellow classmate Marzia Barry echoed this: “We were starstruck at first but by the end of the first class, we were all laughing at the stories Gloria shared with us.”
Gloria was incredibly generous with her knowledge and always offered support to her fellow classmates, often engaging them in debates that were enriching and eye-opening to them as a younger generation. While I was the lecturer, she was the teacher. She was never insecure, and she most certainly didn’t indulge any kind of imposter syndrome. She became a part of the community of young musicians, often taking part in jam sessions around the city.
It is important that the voices of young people are represented as we pay tribute and remember the life of Gloria Bosman. I hope these students will draw inspiration from her and write many a thesis and paper about this cultural giant. She exemplified the notion of breaking boundaries and defying cultural norms which often confine artists to specific types of music based on race, religion or ethnicity.
Through her limitless spirit, she teaches us that the relationship between us and music is transcendent.