Mama Africa: singing the truth

Submitted by Anon on 22 November, 2008 - 5:18 Author: Bruce Robinson

The life of the South African singer Miriam Makeba, known as “Mama Africa” who, died of a heart attack aged 76 in November.

Perhaps more than any other musician, Makeba popularised South African music around the world and became widely identified with the struggle against apartheid.

Born in Johannesburg and singing from an early age, Makeba first became well known in the early 50s when she teamed up with the popular close harmony singers, the Manhattan Brothers. This was a time of Black cultural resurgence in the ghettos of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Makeba became prominent in this, recording with her own female vocal group the Skylarks in a style that drew on both traditional African music and jazz. She took the central role in the popular musical King Kong which was one of the first pieces to bring township life to international audiences.

Makeba left South Africa in 1959 to promote the semi-documentary film Come Back Africa, revealing the realities of apartheid (and in which she appeared as a shebeen singer), at the Venice Film Festival. She was not allowed to return until after the release of Mandela in 1990. Her first place of exile was the US, where she quickly became known with the help of singer and activist Harry Belafonte, appearing on TV and at a concert for President Kennedy. This was a period of a growing folk scene in the US and her music initially became more focused on presenting songs in a traditional African style.

This was also a period when, following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, there was a growing international awareness of the situation in South Africa. In 1963 she made the first of three appearances before the UN Special Committee on Apartheid. While in the mid 60s she had international hits with songs such as ‘Pata Pata’ and ‘The Click Song’, her stay in the US became increasingly uncomfortable for political reasons, as her then husband trumpeter Hugh Masekela stated:

“ I think that there is nobody in Africa who made the world more aware of what was happening in South Africa [in the 60s] than Miriam Makeba…

“The American government were very upset but couldn’t do anything about her fame. Because they were allies of South Africa…we were under surveillance by [the FBI] while we were in the States… It cost her a lot… she bit the bullet when she was at the most lucrative stage in her career..”

Bookings began to dry up and things got particularly difficult after she divorced Masekela and married the Black Power leader Stokeley Carmichael. Eventually in 1968 they left the US for the African state of Guinea where she lived for over ten years.

Makeba was to become involved in a different kind of political controversy when she took part in Paul Simon’s “Graceland” tour in 1987. Simon was accused of having broken the official cultural boycott of South Africa by visiting the country and recording with (Black) musicians there. The arbitrariness of a blanket boycott regardless of conditions became clear when well known opponents of apartheid such as Makeba and Masekela were themselves accused of breaking the boycott by appearing with Simon, though their concert in Zimbabwe was blasted into South Africa by massive loudspeakers to thousands of South Africans who stood cheering.

While Makeba’s recordings came to incorporate modern African and Western styles, she always retained a South African focus in her repertoire. I saw her in 2004, still looking fantastic in bright African dress. She was full of energy, encouraging her young musicians from across Africa, though I think touring was getting hard for her, as she took a break in the middle of her set and seemed to be feeling the effort. She wished to retire in 2005 but ended up touring to the end.

Her last performance was in support of campaigners against the Camorra (the South Italian equivalent of the Mafia) who had recently killed a number of African immigrants and in support of a journalist who campaigned against them. The concert itself had been threatened. Though she sometimes denied she was a political singer, she qualified that by saying “what I sing is not politics, it is the truth” and she remained both a campaigner and a performer to the very end.

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