Mamma Africa: Miriam Makeba and Malaika
Today is the fifth death anniversary of singer activist Miriam Makeba. In our school days her songs were immensely popular; especially Malaika and Pata Pata which used to be bring to our staid Calcutta school the romance of Africa. She was one of the singers who made the sixties one of the most significant decades of revolt in the twentieth century when challenges to authority seemed to be a way of life.
Miriam "Zenzi" Makeba was born in a suburb of Johannesburg in one of the crowded and deprived black townships of the apartheid era. Her father, Caswell, was Xhosa: her mother, Christina, was Swazi. Her given name Zenzi was derived from the Xhosa word Uzenzile, meaning "you have no one to blame but yourself". This was a traditional name intended to provide support through life's difficulties. When she was eighteen days old, her mother was arrested for selling umqombothi, an African homemade beer distilled from malt and cornmeal. Her mother was sentenced to a six-month prison term, so Miriam spent her first six months of life in jail, perhaps a fitting beginning for a life of rebellion.
Her singing career started in Pretoria where she lived for the first years of her life and she sang in the choir of the Kilmerton Training Institute', a primary school that she attended for eight years.Later the family moved north to Transvaal, where Caswell worked as a clerk for Shell. Her mother was a spiritual healer who also took jobs as a housemaid. After the early death of her father, Miriam was forced to work, and for a short spell she also did housework. But she had already noticed that "music was a type of magic" which could elevate her from the poverty that surrounded her. As a young girl, her singing had been praised at the Methodist Training school in Pretoria, but what should have been the highlight of her amateur career turned to disappointment. She had been due to sing “What a Sad Life for a Black Man” for the visit of King George VI, but after the children had stood waiting in the rain for hours, the royal visitor drove by without bothering to stop to hear them.
Makeba was married very early to James Kubay. He was to be the first of five husbands. In 1950 at the age of eighteen, Makeba gave birth to her only child, Bongi Makeba, Makeba was then diagnosed with breast cancer, and her husband abandoned her shortly afterwards .She was cured of the disease allegedly by traditional African medicine.
When apartheid was introduced to South Africa in 1948, Makeba was old enough to grasp the consequences, and to see the limitations placed on the career of her mentor Dolly Rathebe, her senior by four years. However her musical career progressed reasonably smoothly. Since the turn of the century, American jazz and ragtime had been absorbed into South Africa and transposed into local forms. Combined with Anglican Church hymnody, this had led to the distinctive vocal harmonic style known as mbube, practiced in many communities by "evening" or "night" choirs of enthusiastic amateurs. Following a period with the Cuban Brothers, Makeba's big break came in 1954 when she joined the Manhattan Brothers, a top band whose vocal harmonies were modeled on the American Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. This was the first time that her name was featured in a poster.
Eventually, Makeba went on tour with the Manhattans, getting her first taste of the outside by world visiting Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Congo. Playing at home she also experienced some of the most heartless and shameful aspects of the apartheid system, which she later recalled in her autobiography, Makeba: My Story (1988), written with James Hall.
An incident that occurred early in her career shaped her world view and made her a relentless opponent of apartheid. She and her band were involved in a car crash and the police rescued only the white victims in the other car and left her and her band-mates on the road, where three of them died. This seems incredible today, but was normal in the South Africa of that time.
In 1957 she was recruited as a soloist in the African Jazz and Variety Review that toured Africa for 18 months. Then she landed the female lead role in King Kong, a legendary South African musical about the life of a boxer, which played to integrated audiences and spread her reputation to the liberal white community.
The key to her international success was a small singing part in the film Come Back Africa, a dramatized documentary on black life directed covertly by Lionel Rogosin. Makeba played herself, singing two songs in a shebeen (a pub). When the film was finished Rogosin invited her to attend a screening at the 1959 Venice film festival, where she became an instant celebrity. She was flown, via London, to New York, where she appeared on television and played at the Village Vanguard jazz club.
It was in London, while recording with the BBC that she met the legendary Harry Belafonte who was instrumental in getting her a break in the United States. He took her under his wing and guided her through her first solo recordings. African standards such as Pata Pata and the Click Song, which she first performed with the Skylarks, formed the basis of her repertoire and remained the most popular songs throughout her career. Shortly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, Miriam heard that her mother had died, but her own South African passport had been revoked by the South African Government and was prevented from returning home for the funeral. Thus began 30 years of exile which only ended just before the dramatic events of the 90s when apartheid was finally defeated.
Her life in the US continued to unfold like a showbiz dream. She was recording and touring, and meeting all the stars, from Bing Crosby to Marlon Brando. One of the greatest triumphs for this young newcomer was appearing along with Marilyn Monroe at the famous birthday celebration for John F Kennedy.
Her first return to the continent of Africa came with a visit to Kenya in 1962. The following year she gave the first of several addresses to the UN special committee on apartheid, and South Africa reciprocated by banning her records. Shortly afterwards, she was the only performer to be invited by the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to perform in Addis Ababa at the inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity. It was during this period of her life that she began to be called Mama Africa.
A second marriage, in 1959, proved short-lived. In 1964, Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, became her third husband, and she went to perform in Algeria and at the OAU conference in Accra, Ghana. Backstage at a show in San Francisco, a Kenyan student taught her a song which would become part of her standard repertoire. Called Malaika, it is a Swahili love song which she was wrongly informed was a traditional composition. This song from Tanzania was arguably her most famous number and certainly was her greatest hit in India. In 1966 she earned a Grammy award with Belafonte. . There was later a raging controversy in Tanzania over the provenance of Malaika, which several East Africans had claimed to have written.
Increasingly involved in, and identified with, black consciousness, Miriam became associated with radical activity not just against apartheid but also in the civil rights movement and then black power. In 1967, while in Guinea, she met the Trinidad-born civil rights activist, Black Panther, and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael, who became her next husband the following year . Her marriage to him in 1968 caused controversy in the United States, and her record deals and tours were immediately cancelled. [From the heart throb of the millions she was suddenly persona non grata to the US establishment. As a result, the couple moved to Guinea, her home for the next 15 years, where they became close with President Ahmed Sékou Touré and his wife, Andrée. Makeba was appointed Guinea's official delegate to the United Nations, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986. She also separated from Carmichael in 1973 and continued to perform primarily in Africa, Europe and Asia, but not in the United States, where a de facto boycott was in effect. Makeba was one of the entertainers at the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaïre. She addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the second time in 1975. She divorced Carmichael in 1978 and married an airline executive in 1980 and moved to Brussels .
. During her time in Guinea, Makeba had become a double exile, unable to return home and unwelcome in many western countries (she was banned from France), although she collected a sheaf of diplomatic passports from sympathetic African states and enlivened several independence celebrations. She recruited a pan-African squad of top musicians who were on call to accompany her on frequent foreign trips.
She was the first choice performer at festivals as euphoria built up before and after the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and the realisation that apartheid was almost over. After 30 years away, Miriam returned to South Africa to a respectful reception and performed sporadically. But the music business had moved on and, despite working with the hotshot producer and multi-instrumentalist Sipho Mabuse, the opportunities for giving concerts had diminished.
Many younger South Africans intriguingly, had no idea who Makeba was or what she had struggled for on their behalf. Nonetheless, when she announced her retirement in 2005, she found that she was still popular abroad: Her farewell kept on being extended. "Everyone keeps calling me and saying 'you have not come to say goodbye to us!'"
Makeba died on November 10, 2008, fittingly, just after she came off a concert stage in the Italian town of Caserta. She had been singing at a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, an author who had received death threats after writing about organized crime. The cause was cardiac arrest, according to Vincenza Di Saia, a doctor at the private Pineta Grande clinic in Castel Volturno, near Naples, where Ms. Makeba was taken by ambulance. The time of death was listed in hospital records as midnight.
Mandela said in his tribute; ““She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Afrika. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours.”