Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Miriam Makeba during one of her concerts in 1978.
Al Jazeera News:South African Legend Miriam Makeba Dies - 10 Nov 2008
Miriam Makeba, or 'Mama Africa', the South African singer who wooed the world with her sultry voice, has died at the age of 76, leaving a great legacy behind.
Al Jazeera's Dorsa Jabbari looks back at her life of struggle and achievement.
Miriam Makeba Lives
This morning I awoke to the news of the tragic death of Mama Africa
Mama Miriam Makeba. To many Africans in the Diaspora, Miriam Makeba
was the voice of South Africa . Having accomplished so much as a
vocalist, she went further to be the ambassador of the people of South
Africa to the world. She helped bring vivid details of the beauty of
the South Africa and its people and at the same time present the
horrors of apartheid.
Working and living in the Black liberation movement, I along with many
others participated in the anti apartheid movement. I spent many years
on marches, rallies, boycotts, and other activities. The Music of
Miriam Makeba and her ex husband Hugh Masekela will forever be the
soundtrack of that struggle. This music was our news reports on the
lives taken as well as the victories won in the anti-apartheid
struggle. Their music made the names Mandela, Sizulu, Biko, Tambo,
etc come to life for those of us across the waters. The theaters that
she performed in became transformed to meetings for people to share
and update each other on the movement to free South Africa .
Culture has always been central to the lives of African people. The
marriage of culture and movement were clearly essential and effective
in the struggle to end apartheid. Mama Africa's role in creating this
environment must never be forgotten. The boycotts were effective
because the word got out. The calls for the release of Mandela were
effective because the word got out; one of the carriers of the word
was Mama Africa. She managed to spread the word with clarity and
power without preaching.
Her voice, grace, beauty, vision, strength and commitment will live
on. I feel honored to have been moved by the life of Miriam Makeba
and thank the creator for allowing her to share her talent and vision
with us. We have much to learn from her life. As many African
traditions teach us, her spirit is now stronger than ever. Lets
Celebrate Mama Africa.
In the words of freedom fighter Sekou Odinga "If you are a poet make
revolutionary poetry, if you are an artist, create revolutionary art!"
Long Live the struggle for a truly free and Independent Azania
Long Live Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba
by Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele
Salvatore Laporta/Associated Press
Miriam Makeba performing barefoot at a concert in Castel Volturno, in southern Italy, on Sunday night, just before she died.
To be the voice of a nation speaking to the wider world is a tough mission for any performer. To be the voice of an entire continent is exponentially more difficult. Both were mantles that the South African singer Miriam Makeba took on willingly and forcefully. Despite her lifelong claim that she was not a political singer, she became “Mama Africa” with an activist’s tenacity and a musician’s ear. She died Sunday, at 76, after a concert in Italy.
Treating her listeners as one global community, Ms. Makeba sang in any language she chose, from her own Xhosa to the East African lingua franca Swahili to Portuguese to Yiddish. She also took sides: against South African apartheid and for a worldwide movement against racism, to the point of derailing her career when she married the black power advocate Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960s. (They were divorced in the mid-1970s.) Even during three decades of life as an exile and expatriate — the South African government revoked her passport in 1960 — she made it clear that South Africa was her home and her bedrock as an artist.
Her voice, more properly voices, were unstoppable. Always cosmopolitan, Ms. Makeba knew her Billie Holiday as well as old Xhosa melodies like “The Click Song,” with its percussive syllables, which became one of her international hits. She could sound light, lilting and girlish; she could be flirtatious, bluesy or utterly exuberant. Her voice also held a layer of rawer, sharper exhortation: the tone of village songs and spirit invocations, the traditions that were her birthright — songs she revisited on her 1988 album “Sangoma” (Warner Brothers). Her huge repertory didn’t feature strident protest songs but in love songs and lullabies, party songs and calls for unity there was an indomitable will to survive: a joyful tenacity that could translate as both deep cultural memory and immediate defiance.
She must have been an exotic apparition in the 1960s, upbeat and already a star in South Africa, wowing Europe and then arriving in the United States with support from Harry Belafonte. She had already, bravely, sung in an anti-apartheid documentary, “Come Back, Africa.” In exile she was still an ambassador, showing America and the world an Africa full of vibrant, irresistible sounds: the loping mbube grooves that Paul Simon would rediscover decades later, the flow of African words, the grain of her voice.
Videos on YouTube from 1966 show Ms. Makeba, with her musicians in jackets and ties, performing in an elegant long dress that also happens to have a leopard-skin pattern: supper-club Africana that’s at home on any continent. Her music was different but not forbidding, especially with her own charisma to introduce it. Before anyone was tossing around terms like “world music,” she was creating it, making her heritage portable while preserving its essence.
She was never a purist, but always proud of her roots.
Ms. Makeba arrived during America’s civil-rights struggles and performed at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches. A visible reminder that discrimination stretched beyond the United States, she denounced apartheid in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1963. It’s impossible to guess what she may have been thinking when she sang her 1967 “Pata Pata,” with its bits of English narration — “ ‘Pata Pata’ is the name of a dance we do down Johannesburg way” — in the full knowledge that she herself would not be welcome back in Johannesburg until a regime change.
Prohibited from returning to South Africa, she settled instead in Guinea, in West Africa, where she participated in that country’s government-assisted movement toward musical “authenticité” — merging traditional styles with new instruments — and let her repertory stretch further. For a while she also joined Guinea’s United Nations delegation.
Ms. Makeba didn’t have the career of a pop singer, thinking about hits and trends and markets. She followed conscience and history instead, becoming a symbol of integrity and pan-Africanism — lending her imprimatur, for instance, by performing on Mr. Simon’s 1987 “Graceland” tour, which carried South African music worldwide while implicitly pointing to the apartheid that still prevailed at home. Through five decades of making music, down to her final studio album, “Reflections,” in 2004 and concerts till the day she died, she sang with a voice that was unmistakably African, and just as unmistakably fearless.