In Loving Memory Of ‘Mama Africa’ Miriam Makeba
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 ’60s till its dismantling in the early ’90s. 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.
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 US 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 UN 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.
A second marriage, in 1959, proved short-lived. In 1964, Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, became her third husband. In 1966 she earned a Grammy award with Belafonte.
Increasingly involved in, and identified with, black consciousness, Miriam became associated with radical activity not just against apartheid but also in the civil rights movement and then black power. In 1967, while in Guinea, she met the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, who became her next husband the following year.
Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Touré and she returned with him to his own place of exile in Guinea, the west African Marxist state whose leader, Sekou Touré, gave sanctuary to enemies of the capitalist west. After that fourth marriage ended in divorce in 1978, she turned down a proposal by the president, but two years later married an airline executive and moved to Brussels. During her time in Guinea, Makeba had become a double exile, unable to return home and unwelcome in many western countries (she was banned from France), although she collected a sheaf of diplomatic passports from sympathetic African states and enlivened several independence celebrations.
When Makeba played at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in 1985, it was her first appearance in Britain for 11 years, and also her 53rd birthday. There she replied to the criticism that she had turned her back on the west and had gratuitously insulted white people, notably some unfortunate teachers in Jamaica who had suffered an unjustified, personal attack while watching her perform: “People have accused me of being a racist, but I am just a person for justice and humanity. People say I sing politics, but what I sing is not politics, it is the truth. I’m going to go on singing, telling the truth.” When her beloved daughter Bongi died after a traumatic miscarriage that year, Miriam succumbed to a kind of “spiritual madness” that she believed she had inherited from her mother. The following year she was awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld peace prize for her campaigning efforts.
She always took time to endorse the cultural boycott of South Africa of which she was a figurehead. As the apartheid barriers showed signs of crumbling she was embroiled in another strange episode, which saw ANC supporters boycotting her show at the Royal Albert Hall. She herself was accused of breaking the boycott by collaborating with Paul Simon on his controversial Graceland project, with an album in 1986 and concerts, including one in Zimbabwe the following year. Simon was the one being picketed for not conferring with the exile groups before his recruitment drive for South African session players. Makeba and Masekela gave him full support, however, and welcomed the controversy because it brought important issues into general discussion and made cultural activity even more potent.
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.
Miriam Zenzi Makeba, singer and activist, born March 4 1932; died November 10, 2008
Midnite’s Vaughn Benjamin And Kora Player Youssoupha Sidibe Collaborate On For All
This groundbreaking recording FOR ALL is a collaboration between Vaughn Benjamin of Midnite, one of reggae’s most stimulating lyricists and potent vocalists whose works address the fundamentals of ancient wisdom, Rastafari and the African in the Diaspora and Youssoupha Sidibe, a kora player with a diverse musical palette and member of the mystic Sufi Baay Faal community of Senegal, West Africa.
Released on Youssoupha’s Sacred Sounds Record label, the evolution of the project has its origins on the performance stage and ultimately in the individual artists’ parallel efforts towards healing and cultural understanding. The initial idea came about when they met at a performance in Northern California during the fall of 2007.
Youssoupha Sidibe performed after Midnite did on the evening’s bill. When Youssoupha began to play, the members of Midnite began to participate by vocalizing during the kora performance. On that same night, Vaughn Benjamin asked Youssoupha whether he would like to record together and they headed in to the studio.
The two artists then made plans to continue the recording process and Youssoupha traveled to Midnite’s home on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Over a period of a month in December in 2007, the tracks for FOR ALL were laid down. What the project signifies is the first instance where African traditional artist and a modern Reggae artist have collaborated on a full-length recording that has been made available to the record buying public. As Youssoupha notes: “I went to St. Croix to bring the tradition back.” And the evocative nature of this set of recordings is noted as he recalls, “When I went there, it was making me feel like I am doing something important, I didn’t even hesitate, I was thinking that this is my home and these are my people.”
As Youssoupha and Vaughn developed their collaboration, the musicians shared a mutual understanding that the vocal style that was being formed around the kora had an authenticity expected of a singer accustomed to singing with the challenging intricacies of the kora. As Youssoupha reflects on the recording process for For All he notes, “It is not easy to sing with the kora, but he didn’t have difficulty because he sings like a Fulani. “The kora is a mystical instrument, the sound takes you somewhere.”
The recording engineer for this collaboration is Keyronie Allembert, and the songs were recorded at his Make Moves studio. Keyronie played an integral part in the project, contributing to songwriting and arrangements. He has done many recordings and projects with Vaughn over the years. Youssoupha describes the vibes as very strong during the recording process explaining, “We were very excited when we were doing this, it was like we were making history.”
Youssoupha contributes chants in addition to kora on the song “Selassie Bring It On” Vaughn sings, “as the culture is reborn” he makes reference to Goree Island, the place known as the point of no return, which was located in Senegal. This is the location where the slaves were held before departure. Youssoupha Sidibe worked as a guide there at Goree Island in his early years, and it was there that the concept evolved in him and his music to become a vehicle for healing, as he saw African-Americans and their emotional reaction to the experience when they would visit as tourists. He realized then that his music could become a source of strength and a way for many to return to the glorious culture of their ancestral past. The song goes on to describe this as Vaughn sings that the music can “bring inspiration, compassion in a musical declaration.”
The vocal portion of “Selassie Bring It On” that is chanted by Youssoupha is in the Wolof language of his native Senegal. Here he speaks of tradition calling on the ancestors and it is translated as, “Our tradition, Black people, wherever you are…today we are going to praise your ancestors, because our tradition is one, we share it, and we are entitled to it. Today we come to put our hearts together to create an opening. Amazing! Whoever hears this song, will know that we went back to our roots. We brought back the Diaspora with us.”
On “Babe Suckling” Vaughn and Youssou remind us to “make a joyful sound, make an upfull noise, as children of the earth.” They explore the “tradition of the old days today” and to still find a way to gather and play, and that those from the younger generation know it instinctively, as “four year old know these ways, three-year old knows these ways.” These are reminders to us all that “culture makes our brutish heart refined” and that we should be “making some good of all of this called life.”
“Jali” takes a more traditional Senegalese kora format and starts with a lengthy intricate solo from Youssoupha while Vaughn calls on the players of instruments and the healing power of music. His message “everybody need” and “everybody bleed” is a call to alleviate “sufferation in imanity (humanity).” And the vocal portion that is performed by Youssou translates as: “God created the Jali as god created the human being and created music, and that is what makes us happy, feeding our souls, and that is what keeps us company. The Jali/griot is the one who is the shepherd or the keeper, he is the one who is cultivating it and it is our tradition, that is why we praise the Jali.”