Sonja Herholdt was born in Nigel on 1 December 1952. She made her first stage appearance in the local mining community recreation hall at the age of three, singing the Afrikaans lullaby Slaap, my Kindjie. Her mother, a piano teacher and vocal coach, was the accompanist.
Her school career was a stellar one; she became Head Girl of both the Afrikaans medium Tienie Vorster Primary and John Vorster High School. She was also awarded honourary colours for various academic and theatrical pursuits.
Persuaded by her mother to study Teaching rather than Drama, Sonja enrolled at the Johannesburg (Goudstad) College of Education, where she obtained her diploma cum laude three years later. She was awarded the Voortrekker Press Trophy as best student in her senior year.
During her sojourn at the College, she met a young lecturer at the nearby Art School and a romantic relationship developed. FC Hamman was also a freelance cameraman, and it was while he was away in the Kalahari filming the Afrikaans drama Sarah with director Gordon Vorster for a period of six weeks, that Sonja heard the song Ek Verlang na Jou while attending a camp organized by a Young Christians’ Social Group. It struck a chord for obvious reasons and she sang the song to him on his return. FC decided to include the song in the film and Sonja subsequently recorded it. Released as a single to coincide with the release of the film, the song became an absolute cultural phenomenon and launched her hugely successful singing career.
The impact of the song led to her receiving a Sarie (South African Recording Industry) -Award as Best Female Singer for 1975 – the first time the award in that category was awarded to a newcomer. Ek Verlang na Jou ruled all the noteworthy contemporary music charts in the country for months and sales of more than 25 000 singles provided Sonja with her first Gold Record.
Sonja and FC Hamman were married in January of 1976, and later that year her first album, simply titled Sonja, was released to considerable popular and critical acclaim. She was again recognized by the South African Recording Industry and received awards for Best Album as well as Best Female Singer. Receiving the Sarie-Award for Best Female Singer was, in fact, becoming an annual event: she received it in 1977 for her second album, Sonja Herholdt, in 1978 for the single, Trein na Matjiesfontein, in 1979 for the album Waterblommetjies and in 1980 for the album Harlekyn. In addition, it was crowned Album of the Year. Raking in the Sarie-Award for Best Female Singer for six years in a row secured her a place of honour in the history of Afrikaans popular music, but also gave rise to such criticism in the press that Sonja decided to withdraw her entry for 1981, although she did receive the Papillion Rising Star Award as one of the top eight female achievers in South Africa. All in all, her record of eight Sarie-Awards is altogether extraordinary.
In 1979 she fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming an actress by starring in the locally produced Sing vir die Harlekyn and received a Rapport Oscar-Award as Best Female Newcomer for her efforts. She also starred in the Natal Performing Arts Council (NAPAC) pantomime production of Cinderella!
Sonja Herholdt has earned the distinction of having been the first South African singer to be invited to Hilversum in the Netherlands for television recordings commissioned by the country’s national broadcaster. She recorded her hit Oberammergau in Dutch and it scored well on the local charts. Live performances in Belgium helped push Oberammergau to fifth place on the official chart in Brussels.
In 1989, following a move into the Gospel market, Sonja was invited to perform at a Prayer Breakfast organized by the National Religious Broadcasting Corporation in Washington. Her performance, which coincided with the launch of her Gospel album The Warrior is a Child, was broadcast nationally and one of the guests in attendance was the USA’s Vice-President.
In 1991 she received an award from the Afrikaans Chamber of Commerce in recognition of her extraordinary and unequalled contribution to the development and promotion of light Afrikaans music.
From 1982 to 1991, Sonja and FC’s four children were born: Claudia (1982), Simeon (1985), Jesse (1987) and Timothy (1991).
In 1994, Sonja celebrated two successful decades in the music business with the release of her album ? Ster Vanaand.
In 1993, following a short, peculiar illness that defied diagnosis at the time, Sonja’s youngest son Timothy developed an extreme hearing impairment and was, for all intents and purposes, declared deaf. Unshaken by such shattering news, she decided to start a school for hearing and linguistically impaired Afrikaans children in Johannesburg because no such facility existed. Housed in the pre-primary section of Bryanston Primary School, Sonja taught there for five years.
In 1995, Sonja signed an album contract with BMG Records, but also recorded a Gospel album Môre sal die Son weer Skyn for Maranatha Records in 1996. BMG’s compilation album of Sonja’s material included the title track Skipskop, which became an unexpected hit shortly after its release.
Sonja’s life literally ground to a standstill in March 1996 as a result of a serious motorcar accident and the event triggered a series of important changes in her life – the first of which, being the decision to apply for a divorce after a marriage of 21 years. She also decided to actively pursue her singing career again and to hit the road on a regular basis.
She released Ritsel in die Rietbos on the BMG label in 1998 – with long time associate, the song writer Anton Goosen, as album producer. The end result, however, seemed to contain too much of him and too little of her and sales were disappointing.
The deep-seated need to do something different and musically challenging led to her collaboration with the songwriters and producers Carel Cronjé and Cornell Boshoff in 2000. The result of their collaboration was the album Reconstructing Alice, a profoundly personal and introspective musical journey that was hailed a masterpiece and a tour de force by critics. Its release on the Universal label also marked her twenty-fifth year in the music business.
While once again the darling of the music press, the album floundered commercially. Her traditional audience simply could not embrace so radical a change in musical direction. Nevertheless, Sonja was able to build a new and appreciative audience over time.
In 2002, she decided to do a hip, nostalgic retrospective of her old hits and release it herself: Sonjare. Establishing her own recording company, Son Music, to do the marketing and distribution of the album, it sold remarkably well and continues to do so.
It was the reaction of especially women countrywide to the material on Reconstructing Alice and its application in their own lives that led to the realization that she was, slowly but surely, being cast as a role model. In 2003 she started her InCelebration campaign, a celebration of womanhood and a message of hope. As part of the campaign, she recorded and released what can be best termed an audio book – a reading of short stories she received from women all over the country, remarkable stories about remarkable women. The programme Shine Like the Woman You Are that she developed and presented as part of a countrywide tour was a great success.
An official biography seemed the next logical step and her longtime collaboration with friend and songwriter Carel Cronjé led to his writing the book as an autobiography on her behalf in 2006. Self published in April 2007 and launched in Cape Town, Sonja: Meisie van Nigel, became a bestseller within the first four months of its release. The positive reaction has been overwhelming and sales show no signs of abating.
Incorporating the story of her life into her live presentation led to a rewrite of Shine like the Woman you Are and became the biographical and motivational programme, 'n Voetpad na Vrouwees. The popularity of the programme led to the decision in late 2007 to record it for posterity on DVD and release it as a commercial product in April 2008. Frequent requests from show attendees also led to a decision to record the songs she sang as part of her presentation and release these on CD. On the sleeve of the album She, Sonja noted: These songs are more than just the soundtrack to my show; they are songs specially chosen as the soundtrack of my life. Perhaps they will be yours, too.
Currently, as irrepressible and effervescent as ever, Sonja is hard at work applying her talents and abilities to ensure that her audiences are given – and give themselves – the opportunity to grow to their full personal potential and while so doing, listen to her message filled with humour, heart and hope.