In honour of September being Heritage month in South Africa, today’s Mzansi Music Friday post is dedicated to a true legend of South African musical heritage, Miriam Makeba. I recently attended the excellent International Exhibition of Black Music, currently on at Museum Africa where there was some amazing archival footage of some of Miriam Makeba’s live performances.
There’s something truly special and timeless about Makeba’s music. Known as ‘Mama Africa’, Zenzile Miriam Makeba was the first musician to put African music onto the international map in the 1960s. Her music, anchored in her traditional roots, voiced powerful messages against racism and poverty.
“I’m not a political singer… I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us.” – Miriam Makeba
In 2005, just before she retired I was lucky to experience a Makeba performance. Despite her age and health issues, she was still able to charm the crowd. Inspired by the exhibition, and memories of her live perforamnce, I recently bought the compilation album, The Unforgettable Miriam Makeba, and have been singing along to Makeba classics in my car this past week.
One of the videos in the Legends of Black Music gallery at the exhibition was a short biography of Makeba. I found her life story fascinating. Born the child of a domestic worker and sangoma, the first six months of her life were spent in prison as her mother was serving a short-term sentence for illegally selling homemade beer. She gave birth to a daughter, Bongi, at age 17 and shortly afterwards was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she battled successfully.
Makeba learnt to sing in church and perfected her art in the Sophiatown of the ’50s. Sophiatown was the place where SA music legends were made. Wish I’d been around to experience the sounds of kwela, marabi, African jazz and big band that were born in Sophiatown! After her 1956 hit ‘Pata Pata’, Makeba traveled to London and the US as the lead role in the Broadway-inspired musical King Kong. When she tried to return to South Africa in 1960 for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that her South African passport had been cancelled. Tragic.
“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.” — Makeba
Her love life was equally intriguing, her first husband died when she was 19 and she went on to re-marry four times, with marriages to Sunny Pillay, Hugh Masekela and Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael. In the 80’s her daughter Bongi died in tragic circumstances and Makeba battled with alcohol abuse and cervical cancer. Check out this video for more on Makeba’s eventful life:
Makeba’s life should be celebrated during Heritage month, not only for her contribution to SA music (she was the first South African to win a Grammy) but also for her role as an activist. Throughout her exile she spoke out against apartheid. She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others followed her. She was also the first cultural activist to addresses United Nations General Assembly in 1963 saying:
“I ask all the leaders of the world: would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place, would you not resist if you were allowed no right in your own country because the color of your skin was different from the color of the rulers?”
Mama Africa passed away on 9th November 2008 shortly after performing in Southern Italy whilst lending her support to a just cause. Miriam Makeba is a true Mzansi legend, her music will live on. Aluta Continua!
“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 (2004)
International Exhibition of Black Music
When: 1st September – 12th December 2012
Where: Museum Africa, 12 Bree Street, Newton, Johannesburg
Cost: R30 | R40 per person | Sundays Free
Tip: Theres a lot of excellent multimedia, so give yourself at least 3 hours to get the most of the experience