Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


MAKEBA, Miriam

(b Miriam Zenze Makeba, 4 March 1932, Johannesburg, SA; d 9 November 2008 at midnight, near Naples, Italy, after a concert.) Singer, called the Empress of African Song; her full name in Xhosa would take four lines. Her father was a schoolteacher; she became the first black South African to attain international stardom. She attended Methodist Training School in Pretoria, sang in the school choir and also helped her mother clean white people's homes. From 1954 she toured with the Black Manhattan Brothers vocal group for three years; then in musical revues that included all the leading South African musicians; and with the Skylarks (the group also launched Letta Mbulu, Mary Rabotapa and Abigail Kubheka). She made anti-apartheid film Come Back Africa '58; a musical show King Kong '59 about a boxer (including 'Back Of The Moon') toured SA and ran for a year in London. Hugh Masekela played in the show's orchestra; as the political situation worsened they left SA for good, or until its racial policies changed. She appeared on BBC-TV '59, moved on to the USA, where Harry Belafonte landed her a spot on the Steve Allen TV show, followed by gigs at the Village Vanguard and other top clubs; she also appeared with him on records (live Returns To Carnegie Hall '60, An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba '65, etc); her own albums included Miriam Makeba '60 on RCA. She was best-known for 'Westwinds', 'Pata Pata' and 'Qogothwane' or 'The Click Song', using the percussive sounds of the Xhosa language. Her other albums included Forbidden Games, The Voice Of Africa, The World Of Miriam Makeba on RCA, The Click Song on various labels. She was married to Masekela, and toured widely; her delightful personality and mixture of traditional Xhosa songs and jazz-influenced pop always pleased audiences. She helped to invent workld music before it had a name.

Her second husband was the USA black activist Stokeley Carmichael; neither this nor her own political emphasis helped bookings, but she was not seduced by limousines and the bright life: she continued on her own way, moved to Guinea '69 with Carmichael; from her base in Conakry she continued to tour and perform before heads of state (she had sung at President Kennedy's birthday party at Madison Square Garden); received countless awards and was a living symbol of liberation. Her opposition to apartheid included a memorable address to the UN General Assembly '64. She survived cancer in the USA and eleven car crashes, and was married five times; she was deeply moved when young white South Africans told her that they would be glad when she could come home.

Albums on Disque Esperance label produced by Caiphus Semenya included A Promise '74, Pata Pata '77, Country Girl '78; more recently Appel A L'Afrique and Miriam Makeba And Bongi on Syliphone (Guinea); her daughter Bongi's solo album Blow On Wind was on the German Plane label. Makeba could not afford to buy a coffin when Bongi, her only child, died at age 36 in 1985. She buried her daughter alone, barring a handful of journalists from covering the funeral.

Makeba's Sangoma '88 on WB had 19 traditional tribal songs, produced by Russ Titelman, and was dedicated to her mother (she had been prevented by the South African government from attending her mother's funeral after a concert tour of the USA). She published an autobiography Makeba: My Story with James Hall that year. She collaborated on records and tours with Dizzy Gillespie shortly before his death. She could fill the largest venues anywhere in the world except South Africa, where even her records were banned, but returned there in trumph after the downfall of apartheid. A compilation of 1950s recordings on Miriam Makeba And The Skylarks was on DXCD Teal SA/Kaz UK; also Live au Palais de Peuple de Conakry on Esperance/Sonodisc France, Live From Paris and Sing Me A Song on DRG.

In 1992, Makeba starred in Sarafina!, a film with Whoopi Goldberg about the 1976 Soweto youth uprisings; she played the title character’s mother. She also took part in the acclaimed 2002 documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, in which she and others recalled apartheid. When she collapsed she had been singing at a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, an author who had received death threats after writing about organized crime.