Remembering “Mama Afrika” – Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba performed in a concert on Sunday night in southern Italy shortly before she died early Monday, Nov. 10, 2008. [Photo by Cesare Abbate/European Pressphoto Agency/NYT]Miriam Makeba, the South African singer who taught the world about apartheid and was exiled for speaking truth to power, died of a heart attack last night after she left the stage of one more benefit concert. She was 76 years old.

In a statement today, Nelson Mandela said the death “of our beloved Miriam has saddened us and our nation. Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us. She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Afrika. She was a mother to our struggle.””

Listen to tributes on NPR and PRI’s The World, which has a clip of 31-year-old Miriam testifying before the United Nations in 1963. Here is an excerpt from her NYT obituary by Alan Cowell:

As a singer, Ms. Makeba merged the ancient and the modern, tradition and individualism. Her 1960s hits “Qongqothwane,” known in English as “The Click Song,” and the dance song “Pata Pata,” which would be remade by many other performers in the next decades, used the tongue-clicking sound that is part of the Xhosa language her family spoke. Traditional African ululation was also one of her many vocal techniques.

But Ms. Makeba was also familiar with jazz and international pop and folk songs, and while South African songs would always be the core of her repertory, she built an ever-expanding repertory in many languages. Her voice was supremely flexible, and she could sound like a young girl or a craggy grandmother within the same song.

Ms. Makeba’s musical career spanned five decades, from 1950s recordings with South African vocal groups — the Manhattan Brothers and then her own female group, the Skylarks — through her last studio recording, “Reflections” 2004, and her continuing concert performances.

With tenderness, righteousness and playfulness, Ms. Makeba sang love songs, advice songs, spiritual songs, anti-apartheid songs and calls for unity. In bringing African music to other continents, she was a pioneer of what would be called world music, reworking her own heritage for listeners who might never hear it otherwise while creating fusions of her own.

Yet for all her internationalist hybrids, and through three decades as an exile, her music always made it clear that South Africa was her home.

As an exile Ms. Makeba lived variously in the United States, France, Guinea and Belgium. South Africa’s state broadcasters banned her music after she spoke out against apartheid at the United Nations.

“I never understood why I couldn’t come home,” Ms. Makeba said, as quoted by The Associated Press, during an emotional homecoming in Johannesburg in 1990 as the apartheid system began to crumble. “I never committed any crime.” Read more

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