Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) was variously known as Mama Africa, the Queen of South African Music, and Africa’s first superstar. She was one of the first African musicians to receive worldwide attention. Her musical personality and her political stance against apartheid reinforced each other throughout a long career. As fine a musical artist as Makeba was, it is probably for her political activism that she will be remembered.
Miriam had to find work as a child after the death of her father in Johannesburg, where she grew up. She had a brief and abusive marriage at the age of 17, giving birth to her only child. She began singing professionally to support herself, and her talent was quickly recognized. She met the young lawyer Nelson Mandela backstage after one of her performances, a meeting she never forgot.
Makeba had a brief performing role in the 1959 movie, Come Back Africa, which brought attention to her vocal gift. A chance encounter with Harry Belafonte in London, while promoting the movie, led to his becoming her mentor and friend. She moved to New York in 1960, making her U.S. debut on the Steve Allen show. An attempt to return to South Africa for her mother’s funeral was prevented by the South African government. Because of her anti-apartheid views, she had become persona no grata.
Makeba’s personal life, aside from her political involvements, was always-in-motion. Her career in the U.S. was flourishing—her song “Pata Pata” from 1967 was her biggest U.S. hit, and she and Belafonte won a Grammy for their duet album, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba—an album that dealt with apartheid in South Africa.
Makeba was musically at the forefront of what has become known as “world” music—in her case, a blending of Afropop, jazz, and indigenous music from Africa. She was married for five years in the sixties to Hugh Masekela, the so-called “father of South African jazz.”
While she was testifying at the United Nations against South Africa in 1968, she simultaneously became romantically involved with—and later married—Stokely Carmichael, a leader in the Black Panther Party. As a result of this, it was ironic that she lost the interest of white record-buying America at the very same time that RCA, who had purchased her contract, was viewing her notoriety as a positive thing for worldwide record sales.
If all of this activity was not enough, Makeba also successfully won two battles with cancer—breast and cervical. Her closest friends during this decade were Dizzy Gillespie, Cicely Tyson, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, and Sidney Poitier. A remark of hers during this time, concerning living in the U.S.—as compared to living in South Africa—is telling: speaking of racial discrimination in the two countries, she said that “there just isn’t much difference in America; it is a country that has abolished slavery but still has its own apartheid.”
Maekeba’s marriage to Carmichael caused the United States to regard her as an enemy of the state. She was under surveillance by both the CIA and the FBI. While she and Carmichael were on a trip to the Bahamas, she was banned from returning to the U.S. and her visa was confiscated. She lived for the next twenty years in the South American country of Guinea. For the next two decades, she was revered in Africa by many countries as being “theirs”—Ghana, Liberia, Algeria, and Zaire among them. At a stadium concert in Ghana, the cheering of 60,000 spectators drowned out her music altogether.
Makeba’s daughter—who had become a singer herself—died in childbirth in Belgium in 1985. Makebo left Guinea to move to Belgium to take care of her two grandchildren, now motherless. Around this time, Paul Simon made Makeba’s acquaintance and invited her to participate in his highly successful tour and album, Graceland.
I realize that everything I’ve written thus far centers mostly on Makeba’s political life. In her own way—at least to me—she seems like an updated and transplanted Victor Hugo, a great artist with very strong political convictions. She had a most interesting life. I’ve hardly scratched the surface here.
“Pata Pata” was Miriam Makeba’s biggest-selling and most popular song. I certainly love it, and have since the first time I heard it while in high school. The song had actually been recorded ten years before its 1967 release. But with the release of “Pata Pata”–which she considered to be an insignificant song–a strain developed in her professional relationship with Belafonte, which was never resolved.
Does one need to know ANY of this to appreciate “Pata Pata”—a song about a dance? Absolutely not. What I love to do is listen to “Pata Pata” in my car. The song is exceptionally well-recorded, and when the music actually starts (at 0:10), the aural explosion—I always pump up the volume in advance—is really wonderful.
Hope you enjoy “Pata, Pata” and the (too brief) story of Miriam Makeba’s life. She was one of the most admirable women of our time.
Pics: Miriam Makeba; doing the Pata Pata.