End of era as Makeba takes her last bow

South African singer Miriam Makeba performs during a concert in Castel Volturno, south of Italy on Sunday. Italian news agency ANSA said Makeba died in the Pineta Grande clinic where she was taken after falling ill following her performance at an anti-racism and anti-organized crime concert, in support of writer Roberto Saviano, who wrote "Gomorra," a book about organized crime in southern Italy. PHOTO/REUTERS

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  • South African icon, who weathered many storms, dies in southern Italy

The death of South African icon Miriam Makeba brings to an end an illustrious music career spanning over four decades.

Makeba, who died aged 76 years in southern Italy on Sunday night, was an inspiration to many worldwide.

She will be remembered for having vowed to “continue singing and never retire”.

Her illustrious lifestyle ranged from earning the fame of “Mama Africa”, being a symbol of fighting apartheid in her home country, through song and dance.

Her ups and downs in social life marked an illustrious career that associated her to many other leading veteran entertainers like her fellow South African Hugh Masekela and Harry Belafonte.

Was dedicated

In Kenya, Makeba will be particularly remembered for having won recognition from Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta when she composed Pole Mzee, which was dedicated to the Kenya independence struggle.

Notably, she was among the foreign artistes to have had the opportunity of performing in Kenya during the Independence Day celebrations.

Her further closer association to Kenya was when she did a cover version of the legendary Malaika international song, which just showed her ability of singing the popular hit in Kiswahili.

The Malaika song, which was popularised initially by the Fadhili William, had cover versions done by many other artistes both locally and internationally.

Speaking the Nation on Monday, Afro Jazz musician Achieng Abura noted that Makeba’s death had dealt a devastating blow “for most of us who had all along seen her as a inspirational figure in music”.

It is no wonder that most African women singers have idolised Makeba’s powerful singing style.

Similarly expressing shock at Makeba’s death was John Katana, the Uyoga Band leader, who recalled how they used to do cover versions of her songs during live performances in the 1970s.

“During our early days with Them Mushrooms band, Makeba’s songs were among those we mainly used during shows,’’ Katana said.

Notably, some of Makeba’s former band members had a stint in Mombasa where they are remembered for releasing the exciting Bwana Nipe Pesa song.

Also excelled

Makeba’s earlier life in music was not short of controversies. This was when she also excelled as a film actor.

In her later days, Makeba is remembered for her having taken part in the famous South African musical movie Sarafina where she played the role of “Angelina” the mother to Sarafina. This movie by Mbongeni Ngema, depicting South African students involved in Soweto riots, also features Leleti Khumalo and Whoopi Goldberg.

However, notably her professional career began in the 1950s with the Manhattan Brothers, before she formed her own group.
She later teamed up with The Skylarks, singing a blend of jazz and traditional melodies of South Africa.

Her break came when she starred in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa in 1959. This was just but the beginning of her long journey to her troubles with the South African government then.

After having left South Africa, she only discovered that her South African passport was revoked after making an effort to return in 1960 for her mother’s funeral.

Matters were even made worse for her when in 1963, after testifying against apartheid before the UN, her South African citizenship was revoked. But to her advantage, due to her international recognition, she reportedly had acquired nine passports and was granted honorary citizenship of 10 countries.

Having severed her ties back home, Makeba travelled to London where she met veteran Harry Belafonte, who assisted her in gaining entry to and fame in the US. In 1966, Belafonte also assisted veteran Greek singer Nana Mouskouri to performances in America.

It was during this time in the late 1960s when she released many of her most famous hits there including Pata Pata in her native Xhosa and later Malaika.

This was also about the same time when she visited Kenya.

In 1966, Makeba received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording alongside Belafonte for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. Notably, the album had emphasis had a point of exposing the plight of the black South Africans under apartheid.

While still in America, Makeba married Trinidadian civil rights activist and Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968. This resulted in the cancellation of her record deals and tours in the US.

Well respected

This situation prompted the couple to move to Guinea, where they became close with President Ahmed Sékou Touré and his wife. But due to political pressure, Makeba was compelled to separate from Carmichael in 1973. She continued to perform in Africa, South America and Europe.

She was well respected by the Government of Guinea and was asked to address the UN General Assembly as a Guinean delegate where she spoke out against the evils of apartheid.

However, despite all odds, she made it clear that she was as a singer and not a politician.

Her fearlessness earned her many international awards, including the 1986 Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize. She also won the Unesco (Grand Prix du Conseil International de la Musique). As an inspiratonal icon also in the 60s, she was behind the launch of the slogan “black is beautiful”.

Similarly in a quest for interacting, she had the opportunity of meeting world leaders like Cuba’s, Fidel Castro, Hailé Selassie, John F. Kennedy and François Mitterrand.

Makeba toured with singers such as Paul Simon, Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillepsie at shows both in Africa and Europe.
After the ban on her music in South Africa was lifted in 1988, she returned to her homeland in December 1990.

Veteran South African nationalist Nelson Mandela was among those who facilitated Makeba’s return to South Africa.

A year later, she staged her first concert in South Africa, which was highly successful, opening the way to other concerts across the world. Four years later, she started a charity project to raise funds to protect women in South Africa.

Notably, she was among the African and Afro-American entertainers at the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Kinshasa, DRC.

Farewell tour

Another setback for Makeba was in 1985 when her only daughter Bongi Makeba died.

On a positive note, in January 2000, her album, Homeland was nominated for a Grammy Award in the “Best World Music” category.

Her long worldwide farewell tour, which ended tragically in Italy last Sunday, started in 2005. She has since been holding concerts in all countries she had visited during her working life.

According to reports from Italy, Makeba died of a heart attack in Castel Volturno, shortly after having taken part in a concert organised to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a Mafia related organisation.

During her life, she weathered many storms including several car accidents, a plane crash and even cancer.

To her thousands of fans, the musical inspirational voice of Makeba will still live on in many forms.