Miriam Makeba: the voice of Africa

November 14, 2008 12:00 am

, JOHANNESBURG, November 10 – South African singer Miriam Makeba, who has died aged 76, was for over three decades the musical voice of the fight against whites-only apartheid rule.

Her influence was such that she became known as "Mama Africa" to fans all over the world: one of her best-selling albums was simply entitled "The Voice of Africa."

While Nelson Mandela, later to become the first president of a democratic South Africa, languished in prison, Makeba was taking the anti-apartheid message to the masses during three decades of exile.

"She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Africa. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours," Mandela said in a statement Monday after her death in Italy.

"Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and disclocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us."

She was born Zenile Makeba in Johannesburg to a Swazi mother and a Xhosa father on March 4, 1932.

Three months before her birth South Africa had become formally independent from British rule, and the first elements of the apartheid, or racial separation, policy were already being put into place.

Showing an early talent for singing, Makeba started out with a group called The Manhattan Brothers, with whom she toured the United States in 1959.

Her career at home took off in the same year when she appeared in a musical version of the film "King Kong", and also made a brief appearance in an early anti-apartheid film "Come Back, Africa."

The latter was to win her an invitation to pick up an award at the Venice Film Festival.

Once there however, it became clear that her life would be in danger if she returned home, where a panoply of even harsher apartheid laws had been enacted in 1958.

In 1960, when she tried to return home for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that the South African authorities had revoked her citizenship.

Makeba was to spend 31 years in exile, living in the United States, West Africa and Europe, before she was allowed her to return home in December 1990 in the death throes of apartheid.

Although her music was banned in white minority South Africa she rapidly became an international success, encouraged by the US-Jamaican singer Harry Belafonte.

It was with him that she was to become the first black African woman ever to win a Grammy award, for the 1965 album "An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba".

But Makeba also ran into controversy in the United States, where the movement for black civil rights was in full swing, strongly echoing the fight for freedom in South Africa.

Although she had tried to avoid compromising her presence in the country by taking an open stance on US affairs, her marriage to the civil rights activist and Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968 got her into trouble.

After it became almost impossible for her to work in the US, the couple accepted an invitation to go and live in the West African state of Guinea. Her later years in exile were spent in Europe.

Makeba’s marriage with Carmichael fell apart in 1973 — it was the fourth of five marriages, the third having been with fellow South African exile Hugh Masekela, a trumpeter.

She was to return to the United States in later years — appearing at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1981 and then in US singer Paul Simon’s Graceland tour in 1987 which took her to South Africa’s northern neighbour Zimbabwe.

Makeba had her biggest hit in 1967 with "Pata Pata" — Xhosa for "Touch Touch", describing a township dance — but unwittingly signed away all royalties on the song.

She was often short of money and could not afford to buy a coffin when her only daughter, Bondi, died aged 36 in 1985. She buried her alone, barring a handful of journalists from covering the funeral.

According to her biography, she also battled cervical cancer and a string of unhappy relationships.

"I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots," she is quoted as saying in the book. "Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realising."

When she collapsed on-stage just north of Naples on Sunday night, Makeba had been performing at a benefit for the Italian writer Roberto Saviano, who has received death threats after writing an expose of the Italian mafia.


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