Mama Africa

miriam-makebaMiriam Makeba died Sunday night of a heart attack after a concert in Italy. She was 76.

It seems that she collapsed after singing her signature song Pata Pata. An enormous talent with a beautiful voice and a smile to match, she will not soon be forgotten.

“I look at an ant and I see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit.”
Miriam Makeba

I was barely a teenager when she entered my life. I didn’t know she was a protest singer. She was simply this beautiful, sexy chanteuse with an irrepressible smile. I copied her butterfly- winged dashiki minidresses and her go-go boots and danced to Pata Pata at parties. She as well danced it while performing, with fluid moves and a sexy twirling of hips. It was pure joy. That is the moment I remember most fondly. Thanks for the music, Mama Africa!

This girlchild of South Africa, born under apartheid, crossed oceans to sing traditional African music and with her clear, sparkling voice, touched the hearts and souls of people worldwide.

Miriam Makeba

She began her lifelong struggle at the age of two weeks when she served a six-month jail term with her mother. As a girl in South Africa, she worked as a domestic servant for white families. In her teens she got involved in the progressive jazz scene to pursue a singing career. In 1960, while on tour in the U.S., Makeba was denied a visa to return home for her mother’s funeral. The white South African Government then cancelled her citizenship to punish her for speaking out against apartheid at the United Nations. A defiant Makeba was thrust into the position of being black South Africa’s de facto ambassador to the Western world, where she earned the affectionate nickname of ‘Mama Africa’. Her politics, particularly her outspokenness about the evils of apartheid after the Sharpeville massacres, caused her to be banished from South Africa for 30 years. Her recordings were similarly banned. In 1968 her marriage to Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael caused a storm of controversy which led to the cancellation of her American concerts and contracts. She was exiled again and moved to New Guinea, where she continued her musical career. In 1990, she was finally allowed to return to her homeland. Makeba collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Simon, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte and trumpeter Hugh Masekela (also her former husband). Although her music was described as “World” music, she questioned that distinction, saying:

“And why is our music called world music? What they want to say is that it’s third world music. Like they used to call us under- developed countries, now it has changed to developing countries, it’s much more polite.”

Makeba has received a staggering number of awards, prizes, testimonials and honorary degrees to recognize her long commitment to women’s rights, political freedom and ending apartheid. June 16 is declared Miriam Makeba Day in Berkeley, while the date is March 22 in Tusagee, Alabama. There’s even a street named after her in Guadeloupe. She has also had her share of turmoil: she’s been sued over the authorship of her hit ‘Malaika,’ in East Africa, survived one plane and eleven car crashes. Add to this her bouts with cancer, five marriages and the death of her beloved and troubled only daughter. She wrote that at times, she was close to madness and was convinced that mischievous amadlozi spirits had taken hold of her. But the music was always center stage, and her powerful and distinctive voice retained the clarity and range that enabled it to be both as forceful as a protest march and as poignant as an African lullaby.

Michèle Voltaire Marcelin

New Internationalist
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