Adieu Mama Africa Makeba

The curtain has drawn on the illustrious living and career of the high priestess of African Music.
Miriam Makeba.
Miriam Makeba.

The curtain has drawn on the illustrious living and career of the high priestess of African Music.

At 76, the very dynamic, winding journey of life for Miriam Zenzi Makeba, which started in a Johannesburg ghetto in 1932, ended in a small Italian town where she had gone to what she is best known for; to sing for a good cause.

The shining light of African collapsed on Sunday as she was leaving the stage in Castel Volturno, near Naples, Italy according to a statement issued by South African foreign minister Dlamini Zuma.

Singer, songwriter, political activist, actress, great-grandmother and both United Nations and South African government goodwill ambassador, Miriam Makeba’s life has been a story of gracious singing talent and resilience against apartheid in her homeland, South Africa.

She began her career in the 1950s as a vocalist in the South African jazz group the Manhattan Brothers. She then formed her own group, the Skylarks, singing a blend of traditional melodies and jazz that was to become her trademark.

In 1956, she released her monster track ‘Pata pata’ that assured her worldwide fame, but not just yet. 1959 was the landmark year.

She played a leading role in the South African stage production of a black jazz opera, King Kong, “My mother was in the audience,” recounts Makeba to Gamal Nkrumah, a profiler, wiping away a tear with her handkerchief. “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.’ In the same year she made her US debut in November 1959 and also became the first African to win a Grammy award for the album “An Evening with Harry Belafonte & Miriam Makeba”.

In 1960, she appeared in anti-apartheid documentary, ‘Come Back Africa’ which was to become a turning point in her life. When her mother died, she leant that she could not go back to South Africa to bury her because the apartheid government had withdrawn her citizenship and consigned her to a life as ‘a citizen of the world.’ That was her price for playing the anti-apartheid role in the movie.

In 1967, more than ten years after she wrote the song, “Pata Pata” was released in the United States and became a world-wide hit, instantly assuring her of an American and global audience that has stuck with her until the last of her days. 

She continued to sing and put African music of the world map and collaborated with many renowned figures in the America music industry like Dizzy Gillespie, Odette and Nina Simone, Paul Simon’s in 1987 and South African musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Many countries offered her honorary passports (she once held nine) and she found a new ‘home’ in Guinea. She described performances for world leaders such as John F Kennedy, Francois Mitterrand, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah and the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as “unforgettable.”

During her three decades in exile she became an outspoken figure against apartheid, aside from her titillating music and crisscrossed the world; spoke at the United Nations assembly.

In 1990 lady luck smiled on to her. On leaving prison, Nelson Mandela invited her back home. By that time, all her siblings, save one, Joseph, were dead.

“My brother’s was the first face I spotted in the crowd,” she said 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.”

It has not been rosy for the first Africa music superstar. She has weathered many storms in her life, including several car accidents, the loss of her only child, a plane crash and even cancer. She remained as active in her latter years as she did as a young girl with stars in her eyes.

“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 winked and chuckled while talking to the Al-Ahram Weekly in Egypt in 2001.

“The knees sometimes give way, but they are going to be on their best behavior,” she says, patting them proudly as she would one of her great-grandchildren. In one of her last interviews with on a visit to Kampala last month, she gave a talk to women entrepreneurs.

“Women who want to be successful at singing must love it. Don’t be a sometime singer, be a full time singer and love what you do.”

Edwin Nuwagaba wrote in The Monitor newspaper that, whereas the event was supposed to be sort of a speech day, Makeba did not say much.

Instead she dropped her crutches and did what she knows best – performing on the stage. Little did her fans know that Mama Africa was bidding her fair byes how she knew best; on the dance floor, on the stage.

Perhaps, in one of her quotes we will find the strong knowledgeable and unflappable character “Age is getting to know all the ways the world turns, so that if you cannot turn the world the way you want, you can at least get out of the way so you won’t get run over.”

Her role on the stage called earth, in the play of life, has closed. She has left rich and fulfilling years for us to celebrate. Adieu to the lady with an outstanding zeal, a golden voice and a special touch.


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