Al-Ahram Weekly Online
1 - 7 November 2001
Issue No.558
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba:

Mama Africa

Sing it loud, sing it strong

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah


I don't have an earliest recollection of Miriam Makeba: she was simply always there, on stage, television or as a special presidential guest at home in Flagstaff House, Accra. Perhaps my first memory of her could have been when she sang at the third Organisation of African Unity summit in Accra in 1964 -- I cannot tell. However, I distinctly remember her singing at my father's funeral in Conakry in 1972. I was an impressionable 12-year-old and what struck me most about her was the way she revelled unabashedly in her own sensuality, her natural exuberance and utter delight in communicating her feelings passionately to her audience. She came across as the very embodiment of a celebration of life.

Even now, her explosive energy shows no sign of abating.

Singer, songwriter, political activist, actress, great-grandmother and both United Nations and South African government goodwill ambassador, Makeba displays a moving and impassioned creativity and an astounding capacity for working at full throttle.

African leaders have called on the empress of African music for over four decades now, and Miriam Makeba has obliged them happily. Often struck dumb by shyness in her youth, she now feels she can speak her mind. She has worked hard for the accolade "Mama Africa," and it is well deserved. Makeba is best known for her classic Pata Pata, but songs like I Still Long For You, Meet Me At The River, Soweto Blues, African Sunset and Unify Us, a plea for African unity, have enthralled millions in Africa and around the world for five decades. Indeed, she calls her band the Organisation of African Unity -- "African Union, I should now say," she remarks with the enigmatic smile her fans remember from the days of her great triumphs on stage.

"I thought I'd be tired of doing it by now, but I am not. I love to sing." Grandchildren Lumumba and Zenzi now perform with her on stage. Makeba's latest album, Homeland, includes such hits as Maskhane, Amaliya, In Time and Africa is Where My Heart Lies.

(photos: Randa Shaath)
She describes performances for world leaders such as John F Kennedy, Mitterrand, Castro, Mandela, Nyerere, Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Toure and the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as "unforgettable." Similarly close to her heart are shows with international stars. Perhaps the original world music diva, Makeba has toured the world with other internationally renowned artists like Dizzy Gillespie. Her Three Divas tour, with Odette and Nina Simone, was a great success. And Paul Simon's 1987 Graceland world tour, featuring the South African musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was another extraordinary experience. She has performed at London's Royal Festival Hall and Paris' Olympia Theatre. Celebrities like Sidney Poitier, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone and Miles Davis danced, dined and performed with her. They were her idols back home in South Africa. In the US, they became her closest friends. Makeba is also the first African recording artist to have been awarded a Grammy.

One of the most sought-after and glamorous figures on the African musical scene, she is fluent in English and French as well as a number of local South African languages like Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi. But the legendary performer sings in many languages the more bluesy variants of traditional African tunes. She sang Malaika (Angel) in Kiswahili. In Guinea a Lebanese friend wrote an Arabic song for her, Dakheel Eyounek: the words did not come easily, but she managed. Her first Arabic song was Ifriqia (Africa), an ode to her beloved continent, which she first sang at a pan-African festival in Algiers.

I asked if she had a favourite among her many songs. "In New York I heard A Piece of Ground, written by a white South African, Jeremy Taylor. I modified it a little and sang it myself. That song is very special to me because it deals with the land question in southern Africa. We were dispossessed of our land," came her prompt reply. For a mother who sings about the terrible grief of losing her only child, Makeba's answer was an unexpected revelation.

For Makeba, however, the political is personal. Her persona is completely subsumed in the cause of African emancipation. In 1963, at the height of her singing career, Makeba testified against apartheid before the UN, prompting the apartheid South African government to revoke her citizenship and right to return. Again in 1975, she addressed the UN General Assembly. And in 1986, she won the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize. She is perhaps the only African artist who has had three private audiences with the Pope. She will not elaborate on her religious beliefs, but chuckles that the papal visits were not confessions.

Makeba's talent has been put to good use for fund-raising purposes since the heyday of the African liberation struggle in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Recently, Graça Machel-Mandela, the current South African first lady and the widow of the late Mozambican President Samora Machel, asked her to sing at the 15th anniversary of his tragic death in a plane crash over South Africa. The event was held in Mid-Rand, Johannesburg, and Makeba sang A Luta Continua, The Struggle Continues.

She fondly remembers the days she used to visit the Machels in the Mozambican capital. The then exiled Makeba would fly to Maputo, where the anti-apartheid struggle had its headquarters. As a guest of the Machels, she would sing for the South African community of exiles in Mozambique. Today, she works closely with Graça Machel-Mandela for children suffering from HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and the physically handicapped. "The tragedy of civil wars in countries like Angola and Mozambique is that they left many civilians maimed," Makeba explains. Yesterday she was fighting apartheid, today she is enlisting the young in the battle against HIV/AIDS. "Poverty is the reason HIV/ AIDS spread so rapidly in the African townships and slums," Makeba says. "Poverty is the real killer," she says emphatically.

A couple of days before her recent trip to Cairo, Makeba received a phone call "way past midnight" from South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The minister, who was flying to Egypt on an official visit to boost bilateral ties, pleaded with Makeba to accompany her to Egypt and perform in aid of the Cairo-based Association of Friends of the National Cancer Institute (AFNCI) effort to raise funds for the construction of a hospital specialising in the treatment of children with cancer. The project, the first of its kind in Africa and the Arab world, has received generous support from South Africa since it is built to serve child cancer patients throughout the continent. The AFNCI gig was the most recent of Makeba's five-decade musical career, the hallmark of which has been the staging of charitable musical extravaganzas.

With no visa and no tickets, Makeba dashed to the plane preparing for take-off with only a boarding pass in hand. She could not let the minister down. Only a decade ago, taking directives from a South African foreign minister would have been high treason; so Makeba figured that complying with the wishes of a black woman foreign minister in a country with a history like South Africa's is a sacred duty. And all for a good cause to boot.

"We are the now people," Makeba smiles, shrugging off the last-minute mad dash to the airport. "Europeans plan ahead. We Africans don't. Mind you," she giggles, "in 1960 some Senegalese artists asked me to participate in a pan- African culture and art festival, which was to be held in Dakar seven years later! I did not take them seriously and forgot all about it. As a result, when the time came, I had other prior engagements."

Makeba was the first African artist to perform before the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The leaders of the independent nations of Africa showered her with accolades. In apartheid South Africa, however, she was still a "kaffir," a derogatory term derived from the Arabic for pagan or unbeliever, which whites used to designate blacks. Makeba remembers going to the South African embassy in New York to apply for permission to return home for her mother's funeral. "The man at the desk took my passport. He did not speak to me. He took a rubber stamp and slammed it down. Then he walked away. I picked up my passport. It was stamped 'Invalid'. 'They have done it,' I told myself. 'They have exiled me. I am not permitted to go home -- not now, maybe not ever. My family, my home. Everything that has gone into the making of myself, gone'." She has had nine different passports, including those of Ghana, Guinea and Tanzania. In 1972, Fidel Castro gave her a Cuban passport. Now she only has two: French and South African. She even has a school named after her in Pretoria.

She can be shy and retiring, but she holds her own in the most animated political discussions. When pressured to follow orders she sees as inappropriate or politically unwise, she becomes more than a little stubborn. Still, Makeba readily concedes that she's at her best when directed by political leaders. While she sings for political causes, she sees herself essentially as an artist. By her own admission, she is not an intellectual. But her choice of songs forcefully demonstrates the deep thinking that goes on behind the stage production. And while her political statements can seem simple, they are informed by a personal experience of struggle that has given her more wisdom than any university degree. "I look at an ant and see myself: a native South African, endowed with a strength much greater than my size, so I might cope with the weight of racism that crushes my spirit."

Stunningly beautiful at 70, Makeba has an expressive face and a quick smile. Her playful, laughing eyes reveal a feminine and flirtatious nature. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile the bashful off stage Makeba with the way she sways her hips to her signature tune, Pata Pata, written by fellow southern African artist Dorothy Masuka. "I'm 70 next year, and I guarantee that when you see the show tonight, I'll be in better shape than I was 20 years ago," she winks and chuckles. "The knees sometimes give way, but they are going to be on their best behaviour," she says, patting them proudly as she would one of her great-grandchildren.

The rough townships surrounding her hometown, Johannesburg, where she was raised, pulsated with the powerful African rhythms that nurtured her talent. Makeba was born in Johannesburg in 1932. Her mother was a traditional healer-herbalist of the Swazi people. And Makeba inherited her mother's "charisma" and "good singing voice." Her father was an ethnic Xhosa who died when she was six. Makeba was introduced early to the evils of apartheid: she spent the first six months of her life in prison with her mother.

She began her career in the 1950s as a vocalist in the South African jazz group the Manhattan Brothers. Then she formed her own group, the Skylarks, singing a blend of traditional melodies and jazz that was to become her trademark. But 1959 was the landmark year. She played a leading role in the South African stage production of a black jazz opera, King Kong, which tells the tragic story of Black African boxer Ezekiel "King Kong" Dlamini. "My mother was in the audience," remembers Makeba, wiping away a tear with her handkerchief. The memory, however, has brought on uncontrollable laughter, as well as sobs of grief. "That was the only time my mother saw me on stage. At one point in the play I am strangled and my mother jumped from her seat and screamed: 'No. You will not get away with murder. You cannot do this to my daughter.' Friends explained to her that this was not for real -- that we were acting. But she made such a fuss. Everyone was so embarrassed. On stage my heart sank," said Makeba, still laughing and crying simultaneously.

Makeba sang about Africa, but it was America, home to a slew of music festivals and world-famous venues, that pushed her into the international music spotlight. The high priestess of African music won international acclaim for her role in the documentary Come Back Africa, which led to club bookings across the US. The award- winning film was screened at the Venice Film Festival and Makeba was invited to attend. "What I saw made my eyes grow wide. There were white women who cut hay and carried it on their backs and white men with handkerchiefs wrapped around their foreheads to keep the sweat from their eyes as they dug ditches. Back home we never saw whites doing manual work -- that was reserved for blacks."

She was not to return to her native South Africa until well over three decades later. From Venice, Makeba flew to London, where she was received with even more acclaim. But perhaps nowhere was she celebrated more enthusiastically than in the United States. When she flew to New York, Harry Belafonte, "Big Brother" as she would fondly come to call him, sent a car to pick her up. He also arranged for her appearance in Los Angeles on the Steve Allen Show. Makeba's New York debut at the Village Vanguard drew unprecedented crowds. Belafonte asked some of the best fashion designers in the US at the time to dress her. But she had her own, distinctively original style. Indeed, she started a fashion trend in the US, inspiring many African Americans to wear African attire on formal occasions. In America, too, she signed with William Morris and RCA Records. Time magazine called her the "most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years," and Newsweek enthused: "She sings with the smoky tones and delicate phrasing of Ella Fitzgerald and the intimate warmth of Frank Sinatra." Makeba also knew how to move her audiences with rousing political speeches.

She unwittingly gave all that up in 1968, when she married Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture as he later became known, of Black Panther fame. Her marriage to Carmichael cost her dearly. She was blacklisted and her shows in the US were routinely cancelled. The political climate in America had become too repressive for black activists. By association with him, Makeba became affiliated to the Black Panthers in the American psyche. She emerged as a political icon among African Americans of her generation, who loved her as much for her politics as for her art.

In this case, though, the political was personal too. "I suppose my pulse raced a little faster," says Makeba, with a flutter of her eyelashes, of the dashing Black Panther. The couple left America for Guinea, where they became close to President Ahmed Sekou Ture and his wife, Andrée. Makeba was to make Guinea her home for the next 15 years.

When Makeba's only child, her daughter Bongi, died in 1985 after complications in childbirth, she could not bear to stay in Conakry any longer. She and her granddaughter, Zenzi, have sung together about the pain of losing Bongi. It is a heartbreaking lament.

She took her teenage grandchildren, her namesake Zenzi and Lumumba, along with her, and left the country where she had forged such unforgettable memories, the land where her daughter is buried. "I still own a house in Dalaba," Makeba says referring to the breathtakingly beautiful mountain resort in the rugged Futa Djallon plateau of central Guinea.

She travelled to Brussels, staying first with a friend and then moving to a small flat of her own with her grandchildren. Nelson Mandela's 1990 release ended apartheid and Makeba's exile, however, and she launched an emotive and especially memorable reunion tour of her country. "Mandela remembered me from the old days when he used to frequent the clubs I sang in before I left South Africa," she explains. It reminded her of the old days when, as lead vocalist for the African Jazz and Variety Show, she had toured the country with the man who would become her first husband, fellow South African celebrity Hugh Masekela.

She returned home on 10 June 1990, on her French passport. "Normally I sleep during long flights, but when I was returning to my country I could not sleep a wink," she confesses. Accompanying her was her Italian manager at the time, Roberto Meglioli. "He was the only white man around and confessed to me that he was pretty scared," she chuckles.

By that time, all her siblings, save one, Joseph, were dead. "My brother's was the first face I spotted in the crowd," she says quietly. "After a stopover at his house, I went straight to my mother's grave. I spent hours alone in the graveyard, remembering, weeping and contemplating in silence."

From the graveyard, she headed for an ANC youth meeting. "The young people were very excited and chanted 'Mama Africa' as I entered the packed hall where the meeting was held." The spontaneous affection and appreciation she has been shown all over the continent has sustained her over the years -- a point she stresses in her 1988 autobiography, Makeba, My Story.

After Cairo -- this recent visit was her first -- she returns to South Africa to make final preparations for a tour of the US which kicks off in Boston on 1 November. The tour will also take her to San Francisco, New Orleans, New York and Washington, where, at the invitation of the wives of the Arab ambassadors, she is to sing in honour of Mandela at the Kennedy Centre together with her old friend Belafonte. Thus will all the strands of her life -- all the people Miriam Makeba has been, all the places she has seen, and all the causes for which she has raised her voice -- come together at last.

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