Monday, December 29, 2008

In Memoriam: Miriam Makeba

Patriotism is defined as “love of country”. Miriam Makeba understood this well. Raised in the traditions of her father’s Xhosa tribe in South Africa, Makeba was 16 when the Apartheid regime came to power. She began to sing professionally with the Manhattan Brothers, who combined traditional vocal techniques with the vocal stylings of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. As her popularity grew, Makeba was able to form her own group, the Skylarks. Makeba used her increasing popularity to speak to an ever widening audience in South Africa about the evils of Apartheid. Finally, her popularity enabled Makeba to become a solo artist. Her hit “Pata Pata” began to bring her international attention, and the opportunity to tour outside of her native land. This would prove to be an important turning point in her life and career.

Miriam Makeba: Pata Pata


While Miriam Makeba was on an international tour in 1960, the government of South Africa revoked her passport, which barred her from returning to her native land for what would prove to 30 years. Harry Belefonte became one of her champions, helping her to gain an audience in the United States, and her popularity globally allowed her to continue recording and touring the world. She began to adopt a more international repertoire, but she always mixed in the influence of the traditions of her native land, and she never lost the desire to return home.

Miriam Makeba: I Long to Return


In the late 1960s, Makeba married the Black Panther leader Stokely Charmichael. Makeba related the American civil rights movement to the struggle for freedom in her homeland, and she could not be uninvolved while she lived here. But Charmichael was a controversial figure, and Makeba found that the relationship hurt her career. Suddenly, offers to perform in the United States began to dry up. Even in countries sympathetic to the United States, Makeba found that work was harder to come by. So, when Charmichael fled the US, and settled in Guinea, she went with him.

In Guinea, Makeba absorbed the influence of the local music, and incorporated it into what she was doing. She continued to work against Apartheid, and for freedom, wherever she went. For this work, she briefly became Guinea’s ambassador to the United Nations. “Amampondo” is an example of her music from this period.

Miriam Makeba: Amampondo


And so it went. She went wherever fortune took her, and always she sang. She never considered her songs political; she sang of her life. And she always put some of where she was into her work, but she never forgot where she came from. In 1989, Paul Simon invited her to join the Graceland tour. It was the first time she had worked with other South African musicians in many years. Simon was accused of “cultural imperiailism”, of coopting a foreign musical style. But, for Makeba, this was more of what she had always done. It was a way of bringing the music of her home to the world in a form that would be appreciated by the people she performed for wherever she was.

The next year, Apartheid in South Africa finally ended. Miriam Makeba could finally go home again. Her last few albums presented the traditional music she grew up with, and showed her catching up with the changes that South African music had gone through while she was gone.

Miriam Makeba: Ngalala Phantsi


This year, Makeba was asked to perform a concert in Italy, at a concert promoting the right to speak out against the Mafia. Of course, she went. On November 9, she collapsed on stage after performing “Pata Pata”. Not long after, she was gone. But the spirit of freedom lives on in her music.

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