Miriam Makeba would have been 81 years old on Monday, March 4, but sadly, the South African singer, actress, and “Empress of African Song” died suddenly five years ago during a concert for Italian human rights activist Roberto Saviano in Castel Volturmo.
It was right after she sang Pata Pata, her signature song and the one that first lifted her to national fame in the mid-1950s in South Africa.
So it is somehow fitting that the very song that launched her professional musical career was also the one that allowed her to exit on that uplifting note.
Makeba died of a heart attack that left the world feeling bereaved, for we had lost the woman best known as Mama Africa, a woman who best embodied the anti-apartheid spirit of resistance to racial oppression and injustice.
She did it primarily with a voice that Newsweek magazine once compared to Ella Fitzgerald’s and Frank Sinatra’s.
Newsweek wrote in 1967 that Miriam Makeba sang in “smoky tones [with the] delicate phrasing of an Ella Fitzgerald” (the brilliant African American jazz singer) and “the intimate warmth of Frank Sinatra.”
Meanwhile, that same year TIME magazine called her “the most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years.”
But that was more than 10 years after she had made her professional debut, singing with the South African jazz group, the Manhattan Brothers, and recording her first hit single Pata Pata in 1956.
Her musical training consisted of eight years singing in her primary school choir at the Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria.
Married in 1950 to James Kubay, she gave birth to her only child, a little girl named Bongi Makeba.
When Miriam was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after Bongi was born, James decided that was his cue to leave and never return.
But Makeba never stopped singing. She even started her own all-girl group called the Skylarks, which sang and recorded a mixture of jazz and traditional South African melodies.
Her big break came after recording Pata Pata and getting a call from the independent American filmmaker, Lionel Rogosin, who asked her to make a guest appearance in his anti-apartheid documentary film, Come Home Africa.
The film went on to win the prestigious Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Rogosin already appreciated Makeba’s star power, so he arranged for her passage out of South Africa and a visa to go to Venice.
After that, it seemed the floodgates opened for her. It was 1959 and she travelled all around Europe and the US, where she made her American debut on the popular television talk show, The Steve Allen Show (a precursor to Oprah Winfrey’s).
That same year she was also invited to sing as the female lead in an off-Broadway musical entitled King Kong.
Coincidentally, the renowned South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela was also in the cast. They would get married five years later, divorce two years after that, but remain friends for life.
Makeba had never planned to live in exile for the next 30 years. However, in 1960 she tried to go home to attend her mother’s funeral, but soon learned that her South African passport had been cancelled by the apartheid regime.
Taken unawares by this turn of events, she was suddenly stateless.
Fortunately, she was already recognised as an early anti-apartheid activist, such that three countries — Guinea, Ghana, and Belgium — all came to her rescue, issuing her with international passports. In no time, she had gone from being a stateless soul to becoming an authentic “citizen of the world”.
In fact, in her lifetime, Makeba would acquire no less than nine different passports and be awarded 10 more honorary citizenships. But those would come later on in her life.
Another major turning point for her came with her meeting in London with Harry Belafonte in 1961.
He was already well-established as the “King of [Caribbean] Calypso”, and she had just arrived from the States where, having signed a record contract with RCA Victor, she had recently released her first two major albums, the second one of which (The World of Miriam Makeba) would win accolades at the Grammy music awards, recognised for being an early example of the musical genre cryptically known as “World Music”.
The album even peaked at 86 on the prestigious Billboard 200 Music Chart.
Belafonte and Makeba became the best of friends. They began singing together and it was not long before they were invited to sing at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for American President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party.
Their singing partnership would eventually lead to the production of the award-winning album, An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba, which won a Grammy in 1966 for Best Folk Recording.
One striking feature of the album was its infusion of African languages such as Zulu, Shona, and Kiswahili. But also, the album had powerful political overtones reflecting on the plight of black South Africans oppressed and exploited under apartheid.
Makeba had already established herself as a charismatic anti-apartheid activist, especially when she agreed to testify against apartheid at the United Nations General Assembly.
Her testimony in 1963 was so well received at the UN that it was not long thereafter that she learned that the South African regime had not only cancelled her citizenship, but had also revoked her right of return to her homeland.
But South Africa’s loss was the rest of the world’s gain. Makeba’s musical career in the States took off.
This was the time when TIME and Newsweek were printing their praise for her performative powers.
Unfortunately, she did not have good fortune with men as she did with music. Her marriage to Hugh Masekela in 1964 lasted only two years.
Two years after that, she married the Trinidad-born civil rights activist, Black Panther and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader, Stokely Carmichael. Her career took a major tumble.
Carmichael was seen to be an early version of what Americans now call “terrorist”.
Being a Black Panther in the 1960s was rather like being a “Communist” or “Islamic extremist”. You were a public enemy and your spouse was considered an extension of you. Thus, it was no surprise that all Makeba’s record contracts and music tours were unceremoniously cancelled.
Her marriage to Carmichael generated so much controversy that the couple chose to move out of the States to take up residency in Guinea. There they became close friends with President Ahmed Sekou Toure and his wife.
Makeba and Carmichael stayed together until 1973. She remained in Guinea for 15 years, although she revived her career by touring all over Africa, Asia, and Europe.
She did not return to the US, however, for many years, since the taint of her marriage to Carmichael meant that she was de facto boycotted from entry.
She was not invisible to her American audiences, however, especially when, in 1974, she performed in Zaire at the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
The following year she was invited again to speak at the UN against apartheid. And while living in Guinea, she was appointed that country’s official delegate to the UN, such that it was no surprise when she was awarded the Dag Hammorskjold Prize for Peace several years after that.
Makeba had known her share of tragedy, especially when in 1985 her daughter Bongi died.
But the following year, her whole life was turned right side up once again when her former husband, Hugh Masekela, introduced her to the American singer-songwriter Paul Simon, who invited her to join his Graceland tour.
Makeba once said she would be forever grateful to Paul Simon since that tour not only took her around the world, it also helped break the ice with the Americans, who would soon welcome her back with open arms.
In 1987, the Graceland tour gave two concerts in Harare which were filmed and made into a musical documentary entitled Graceland: The African Concert, which won more awards.
It was after the documentary reminded Americans how much they loved Makeba that, first her Sangoma album was released, then her autobiography, Makeba: My Story, was published and translated into German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and English.
Another major turning point in her life and the life of her homeland happened in 1988 when she was invited to Wembley Stadium in London to sing at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party. It was an historic event shown in 67 countries and seen by more than 600 million people.
Also known as the “Free Nelson Mandela Concert” and the “Freedom Fest”, the concert put so much pressure on the apartheid regime that it was not long afterwards that then South African President F.W. de Klerk reversed the ban on the African National Congress, then freed Mandela from the Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990.
It was Mandela who persuaded Makeba to come back home, which she did, for the first time in 30 years, travelling on her French passport.
Marking a whole new phase in her life, she recorded yet another brilliant album entitled Eyes on Tomorrow.
It was filled with hope and joy and combined jazz, rhythm and blues, pop, and African songs into one delicious musical mixture.
What made the album even more special was its cross-cultural blend of brilliant musicians, including two African American stars, Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone, as well as her former sweetheart, Hugh Masekela.
She took the music from that disk on tour with Gillespie and in the process, found herself doing special appearances on American television, on The Bill Cosby Show and South African movies like Sarafina, playing Sarafina’s mother Angelina, co-starring with Whoopy Goldberg.
The last few years of her life found Makeba finally getting her due for making the sacrifices that she did.
In 1999, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) nominated her a Goodwill Ambassador, leading her to working closely with South Africa’s First Lady, Gracia Machel-Mandela, highlighting the plight of child soldiers, children with HIV/Aids, and those with physical handicaps.
In 2001, she was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Award by the UN Association of Germany and the following year, she received the Polar Music Award from the King of Sweden.
Then in 2005 she launched what she prophetically called her Farewell Tour, which would take her to all the countries she had performed in the past.
That is when I saw Makeba in Chicago in one of the last concerts she gave before she died in 2008.
Soon after her passing, the Beninoise singer-song writer Angelique Kidjo created a tribute show called Hommage à Miriam Makeba. It was performed first in Paris, then in London at the Barbican.
Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki has made a timeless documentary on The Life of Miriam Makeba: Mama Africa, which is one more confirmation of the awesome, yet humble genius of this great woman who gave her life to be the songstress, soul, and empress of African song.