Remembering Mama Africa, five years on

Makeba with husband Stokely Carmichael in May, 1968
Makeba with husband Stokely Carmichael in May, 1968

“I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising” – Miriam Makeba

Tomorrow marks the fifth death anniversary of the Grammy Award-winning South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba.

Mama Afrika – as she was christened – would have been 81 years old if she were alive today.

Makeba died in Naples, France, where she collapsed on stage after singing in a concert in memory of six immigrants from Ghana shot dead a year earlier.

Makeba was born in Johannesburg in 1932 at a time when the country faced an economic depression. Her mother, a domestic worker, was imprisoned for six months for illegally brewing beer to help make ends meet, and Makeba went to prison with her as she was just 18 days old.

She is lauded as one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of South Africa's apartheid regime of the 1960s till its dismantling in the early 1990s. She was 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.

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. 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 1988 autobiography, Makeba: My Story, 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.

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, she 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 31 years of exile.

“I always wanted to leave home. I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you've ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That's when it hurts,” she told a reporter in an interview.

Return to Africa

A visit to Kenya in 1962 marked her first return to Africa after 31 years. 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. The same year, 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.

Makeba’s appearances in the films Come Back Africa in 1957 and as the female lead in Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong 1959 cemented her reputation in the music industry both locally and abroad. She later married her King Kong co-star, Hugh Masekela – her third husband – in 1964. A second marriage, in 1959 had proved short-lived. Backstage at a show in San Francisco, a Kenyan student taught her a song called Malaika which would become part of her standard repertoire. In 1966 she earned a Grammy award with Belafonte.

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. After that fourth marriage ended in divorce in 1978, she turned down a proposal by the president, but two years later, she married an airline executive and moved to Brussels.

She also endured some bizarre showbusiness episodes. In Denmark, a country where she had solid support, she once failed to appear for a show. She returned some years later only to be jailed for a night until the outstanding financial penalty had been paid on her behalf. There was also controversy in Tanzania over the provenance of Malaika, which several East Africans had claimed to have written.

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,” she said.

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.

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. Following a three-decade-long exile, her return to South Africa was celebrated as though a queen was restoring her monarchy.

The response was fitting as Makeba remains the most important female vocalist to emerge out of South Africa, helping bring African music to a global audience in the 1960s.

Up to her demise, Makeba left 23 studio and five live albums among many other recordings.


-Additional information from The Guardian and South Africa History Online.