Celebrating Women’s History: The life of ‘Mama Africa,’ Miriam Makeba

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Miriam Makeba

Written by Barbra Harris ((April 27, 1953–July 4, 2010)

This story was originally printed in the November 20-26, 2008 issue of the Jackson Advocate.  

Grammy-winner Miriam Makeba, the South African songstress who brought her native music to the interna-
tional stage but was banned from her country for more than 30 years under apartheid, has died.

Makeba died of a heart attack at a clinic in Castel Volturno, Italy, near Naples, early Monday, Nov. 10, 2008 after collapsing on stage the previous evening. She was 76.

Her grandson, Nelson Lumumba Lee, and longtime friend, Italian promoter Roberto Meglioli, were at herbedside. Makeba collapsed immediately after singing her signature song, “Pata Pata,” at a concert in solidarity with six Ghanan immigrants who were shot to death in September in Castel Volturno, an attack being blamed on organized crime.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, who himself was jailed for 27 years under the apartheid system, said it was fitting that Makeba’s last moments were spent on stage.

“Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years,” Mandela said in a statement. “At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”
News of the death of “Mama Africa,” as Makeba was called, sent native South Africans into shock, dismay
and mourning.

In a statement, South African foreign affairs minister Nkosanzana Dlamini Zuma said, “One of the greatest songstresses of our time has ceased to sing.

“Throughout her life,” he said, “Mama Makeba communicated a positive message to the world about the struggle of the people of South Africa and the certainty of victory over the dark forces of apartheid and colonialism through the art of song.”

Born in 1932 in Johannesburg, Miriam Makeba had a long and dramatic career, both as a singer and human rights advocate. She was the first vocalist to put African music onto the international map in the 1960s.

She began to sing professionally as far back as 1950 with the Cuban Brothers, and became known across the land with the jazz group Manhattan Brothers, who toured South Africa, the former Rhodesia and Congo until 1957.

She went on to join the all-female group Skylarks and sang on their disk. In 1959, Makeba took on the female lead in the musical “King Kong,” about a boxer who kills his sweetheart and later dies in prison. The musical, publicized as a “jazz opera,” was a huge success in South Africa.

To avoid the racist apartheid laws that divided the public, the musical was often performed at universities. That same year, American film director Lionel Togosin made a documentary film, “Come Back, Africa,” from South Africa on which Makeba collaborated, and wanted her to present it at the Venice Festival.

Makeba accepted the job, but got into hot water with South African authorities that railed against the negative attention they received through the presentation of the film. While in Italy, Makeba decided not to return to South Africa where she received little or no pay for her performances.

This resulted in the South African government revoking her passport and denying her the possibility of ever returning to her homeland, a discovery she made when she tried to fly home for her mother’s funeral in 1960.

Makeba took refuge in London after the festival and met the legendary Harry Belafonte, who helped her emigrate to the U.S., where she rebuilt her career.

She was the first black musician to leave South Africa because of apartheid, but over the years, many others followed her example. Her close relationship with Belafonte brought her star status in the states, where she performed for President John F. Kennedy at his birthday party in 1962.

In the U.S., Makeba had several hits in the 1960s, including “Pata Pata,” “The Clique Song,” and the Tanzanian “Malaika,” while remaining an active opponent of the apartheid regime in her country. In 1963, she appeared before the U.N. Special Committee on Apartheid to call for an international boycott of South Africa, whose government then banned her records. At that time, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was growing. 

In 1966, Makeba received the Grammy for Best Folk Recording together with Belafonte for “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.” The album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid. For many years, Makeba was married to trumpet player and colleague Hugh Masekela, but split from him, and in 1968, wed Black Power Movement leader Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Toure).

With that marriage, she soon fell out of favor with conservative white audiences and U.S. authorities. Makeba found support from Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and others, yet went into exile in Guinea, Africa. She managed to find work outside the U.S., and toured Europe, South America and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. During those years, she often appeared at jazz festivals, including Montreaux and Berlin.

In 1987, she participated in Paul Simon’s “Graceland” concert in Zimbabwe, defending it even though it officially went against the cultural boycott of South Africa. After more than three decades being banned from her country, Mandela invited Makeba back to South Africa shortly after his release from prison in 1990 upon the fall of apartheid.

“It was like a revival,” she said. “My music having been banned for so long, that people still felt the same way about me was too much for me. I just went home and cried.” Makeba continued to court controversy by lending support to dictators such as Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema and Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, performing at political campaigns even as they were violently suppressing movements for democracy that swept West Africa in the early 1990s.

Nevertheless, Makeba insisted that her songs were never meant to be political. “I’m not a political singer,” she told Britian’s Guardian newspaper earlier this year. “I don’t know what the word means.

“People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa,” she said. “No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa, we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us.”

Though Makeba announced her retirement in 2005 and appeared in a series of farewell concerts, she never stopped performing. When she turned 75 last year, she said she would sing for as long as possible – and she did.

Miriam Makeba has an extensive musicology. “The Best of Miriam Makeba & the Skylarks,” (Camden/BMG/1998) is a classic collection of songs from Makeba’s early career in South Africa. This material was recorded in 1957-59 in the Gallo studios of Johannesburg with Alan Boyle in control, and the technical quality is excellent.

The Skylarks at the time was made up of Makeba, Abigail Kubeka, “Mummy Girl” Mketele, Mary Rabotako and Nomunde Sihawu. Four of them were also composers of their songs and were backed by various studio musicians on bass, drums and guitar. Sometimes, these were mixed with trumpet and clarinet with Spokes Mashlyana on flute (penny whistle).

Timeless music, the Skylarks sing joyfully. The style is a mixture of traditional songs and western jazz elements. “Sangoma” (Warner Brothers/1988) is Makeba’s comeback album from the U.S. and consists of a collection of xhosa songs she learned as a child, with Russ Titelman as producer.

Makeba sings solo and in choir with herself and a group made up of Brenda Fassie, Linda Tshabalala and Hugh Masekela, who also contributed on percussion. All the songs are traditional xhosa songs, sung a capella, with careful overlay of percussion. Makeba and the group sing engagingly and shine.

“Le Monde de Miriam Makeba” (Disques Esperance/Sonodisc/1989) is a compendium album with songs such as “Kilimanjaro” and “Ngoma Kurila,” the latter from “Pata Pata.” This is Makeba at the zenith of her career and the entire album speaks to it, from Mbuba-inspired “Zenizenabo” to jazz-inspired “Thanay.” Most are xhosa songs and the backing is comprised of acoustic guitar and bass, percussion and trumpet. Makeba sings with precision and empathy.

As with all artists, one tends to understand what it’s all about though the words are alien. The last three songs are in English. “Africa” (Novus/1991) is a compendium album with several of Makeba’s folk-inspired recordings from the 1960s. “Sing Me A Song” (Sonodisc/1993) is said to not be Makeba’s best work and is comprised of 16 funky songs written by members of her band.

“Homeland” is Makeba’s first offering after her homecoming to the new South Africa. “Mama Africa” wishes, naturally enough, to celebrate the land from which she was so long exiled.

The album is a mix of English language and traditional African songs in xhosa, where the latter comes out better. “Unhome,” for example, (misprint for “Umhome”) is about a young bride who moves into her new home with her husband and his cousin. The husband is in the meantime soon interested in the cousin and dismisses his wife. It’s sung out of anger and shame.

This gripping song is arranged as a jazz song, and is decidedly the CD’s best track. Here, Makeba reaches up to the old heights, singing with empathy and flexibility. And perhaps, this song is a far more precise picture of the situation in the new South Africa than several other tracks on “Homeland.”

More difficult are the English language songs. Several of them are meant to extol South Africa, with titles such as “Africa Is Where My Heart Lies” and “Cause We Live For Love.”

“The Guinea Years” confirms that Makeba was an artist ahead of her time. On this CD, she sings in nine languages and not one of her many crossings of cultural borders sounds artificial.

There are two songs in Arabic, one of them, “Africa,” recorded with a large string orchestra, but it works. “The Guinea Years” sounds a bit like older recordings with such artists as Billie Holiday. Miriam Makeba is African music’s first and foremost world star. She is a pioneer who played her early songs and blended different styles long before anyone even began to talk about “world music.” Her disk production is spread across many companies all over the world – so far and wide that it is difficult to get a panoramic view of it. But no collection of African music should be without one or more of her recordings.

Makeba published her autobiography, “Miriam, My Story,” in English in 1988. It was subsequently translated and published in German, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Japanese. In 1992, Makeba appeared in the South African award- winning musical “Sarafina” as Sarafina’s mother. Two years later, she reunited with ex-husband, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, for the Tour of Hope.

In 1995, Makeba formed a charity organization to raise funds to help protect South African women. That same year, she performed at the Vatican’s Nevi Hall during a worldwide broadcast of “Christmas in the Vatican.” Miriam Makeba is survived by her grandchildren, Nelson Lumumba Lee and Zenzi Monique Lee, and greatgrandchildren, Lendilani, Ayanda and Kwame

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Celebrating Women’s History: The life of ‘Mama Africa,’ Miriam Makeba

By Jackson Advocate News Service
November 20, 2008