An outspoken opponent of apartheid, Miriam Makeba was exiled for 30 years
Miriam Makeba, who has died aged 76, was known as Mama Africa and the Empress of African song. She was one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of South Africa’s apartheid regime from the 1960s till its dismantling in the early 1990s. She was also the anti-apartheid movement’s most audible spokesperson, having entered the top flight of international performers and able to sell out prestigious concert halls with a repertoire that changed little over three decades of musical evolution.
Makeba’s career propelled her from township singing group to global celebrity, feted in some countries and banned from others. She was a natural and consummate performer with a dynamic vocal range and an emotional awareness that could induce the delusion of intimate contact in even the most impersonal auditorium. But her personal life was an epic tragedy of injustice, domestic upheaval, exile and torment.
Miriam “Zenzi” Makeba was born in a township suburb of Johannesburg. Her father, Caswell, was Xhosa: her mother, Christina, was Swazi. The name Zenzi (from the Xhosa Uzenzile, meaning “you have no one to blame but yourself”), was a traditional name intended to provide support through life’s difficulties.
Later the family moved north to Transvaal, where Caswell worked as a clerk for Shell. Her mother was a spiritual healer who also took jobs as a housemaid. After the early death of her father, Miriam was forced to work, and for a short spell she also did housework. But she had already noticed that “music was a type of magic” which could elevate her from the poverty that surrounded her. As a young girl, her singing had been praised at the Methodist Training school in Pretoria, but what should have been the highlight of her amateur career turned to disappointment. She had been due to sing What a Sad Life for a Black Man for the visit of King George VI, but after the children had stood waiting in the rain, the royal visitor drove by without stopping to hear them.
When apartheid was introduced to South Africa in 1948, Makeba was old enough to grasp the consequences, and to see the limitations placed on the career of her mentor Dolly Rathebe, her senior by four years. Makeba gave birth to her daughter Bongi at the age of 17 and was then diagnosed with breast cancer, which was treated unconventionally, but successfully, by her mother. The first of her five husbands left her shortly after.
Her musical career progressed more smoothly. Since the turn of the century, American jazz and ragtime had been absorbed into South Africa and transposed into local forms. Combined with Anglican church hymnody, this had led to the distinctive vocal harmonic style known as mbube, practised in many communities by “evening” or “night” choirs of enthusiastic amateurs. Following a period with the Cuban Brothers, Makeba’s big break came in 1954 when she joined the Manhattan Brothers, a top band whose vocal harmonies were modelled on the American Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots.
Initially, when the Manhattans travelled abroad Makeba joined a female group called the Sunbeams, who became better known as the Skylarks. They recorded more than 100 songs, many of which became big hits, with Miriam singing alongside Abigail Kubeka, Mummy Girl Nketle, Mary Rabatobi and sometimes with Dorothy Masuka, who brought songs from her homeland of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
Eventually, Makeba went on tour with the Manhattans, getting her first taste of the outside by world visiting Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Congo. Playing at home she also experienced some of the most heartless and shameful aspects of the apartheid system, which she later recalled in her autobiography, Makeba: My Story (1988), written with James Hall.
In 1957 she was recruited as a soloist in the African Jazz and Variety Review that toured Africa for 18 months. Then she landed the female lead role in King Kong, a legendary South African musical about the life of a boxer, which played to integrated audiences and spread her reputation to the liberal white community.
The key to her international success was a small singing part in the film Come Back Africa, a dramatised documentary on black life directed covertly by Lionel Rogosin. Makeba played herself, singing two songs in a shebeen. When the film was finished Rogosin invited her to attend a screening at the 1959 Venice film festival, where she became an instant celebrity. She was flown, via London, to New York, where she appeared on television and played at the Village Vanguard jazz club.
The calypsonian Harry Belafonte took her under his wing and guided her through her first solo recordings. African standards such as Pata Pata and the Click Song, which she first performed with the Skylarks, formed the basis of her repertoire and remained the most popular songs throughout her career. Shortly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, Miriam heard that her mother had died, but her own South African passport had been revoked and she was prevented from returning home for the funeral. Thus began 30 years of exile.
Her life in the U.S. continued to unfold like a showbiz dream. She was recording and touring, and meeting all the stars, from Bing Crosby to Marlon Brando: the young newcomer was also staggered to find herself appearing along with Marilyn Monroe at the famous birthday celebration for John F. Kennedy.
Her first return to the continent of Africa came with a visit to Kenya in 1962. The following year she gave the first of several addresses to the U.N. special committee on apartheid, and South Africa reciprocated by banning her records. Shortly afterwards, she was the only performer to be invited by the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to perform in Addis Ababa at the inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity. To much of the world, Makeba had reached a level of statesmanship that verged on saintliness.
She was the first choice performer at festivals as euphoria built up before and after the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and the realisation that apartheid was almost over. After 30 years away, Miriam returned to South Africa to a respectful reception and performed sporadically. But the music business had moved on and, despite working with the hotshot producer and multi-instrumentalist Sipho Mabuse, the opportunities for giving concerts had diminished.
Many younger South Africans had no idea who Makeba was or what she had struggled for on their behalf.Nonetheless, when she announced her retirement in 2005, she found that she was still popular abroad: “Everyone keeps calling me and saying ‘you have not come to say goodbye to us!’”
So the farewell tours continued till her death in Naples, where she collapsed on stage after singing in a concert in memory of six immigrants from Ghana shot dead last September, an attack blamed on the city’s organised crime. When she was in Britain last May with her much younger eight-piece band, led by her grandson Nelson Lumumba Lee, John L Walters found her in “confident, clear-voiced form,” defying the limitations placed on her mobility by osteoarthritis.
She is survived by Nelson and her granddaughter Zenzi Monique Lee. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008