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South African Singer Miriam Makeba Dies at 76

South Africans are mourning the death of Miriam Makeba, the South African songstress and anti-apartheid activist who died after falling ill while performing at a concert in Italy. From our southern Africa bureau in Johannesburg, VOA's Delia Robertson has this profile on the woman widely known as Mama Africa.

The so-called Click Song became Miriam Makeba's signature tune throughout the world perhaps because of its curiosity value, featuring as it did, a range of complex vocalizations in Xhosa.

But as catchy as it was, the Click Song did not capture Makeba's extraordinary range and versatility as can be heard in Remember Sophiatown, a song about a suburb in Johannesburg where all races resided side-by-side.

In 1955 the government forcibly removed 60,000 people from Sophiatown, razed it and built low-income housing for poor Afrikaans-speaking whites. They renamed it Triomf, or triumphant.

Makeba first became popular singing with the local group, the Manhattans, and then formed her own group, the Skylarks with whom she performed African and jazz songs. But she acquired true local fame in 1959 with her remarkable performance in the homegrown musical King Kong, inspired by the U.S. movie of the same name.

Following that performance Makeba starred in the anti-apartheid documentary, Come Back Africa and attended the premier at the Venice film festival. She then went to London where she met U.S. singer Harry Belafonte. He was instrumental in bringing her to the United States and helped her to establish herself. In 1966 she was awarded a Grammy for an album she recorded with Belafonte, An Evening with Belafonte, Makeba.

She recorded many songs in the United States including Pata Pata, The Click Song, and Malaika.

She went on to perform with South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, whom she would later marry.

When she attempted to return to South Africa for her mother's funeral in 1960, she discovered her passport had been revoked. It would be 30 years before she would be able to return home.

In 1963, Makeba testified before the U.N. Special Committee on Apartheid and called for an international boycott of South Africa. The government retaliated, revoking her citizenship and outlawing all her recordings; but South Africans continued to play her songs, such as Pata Pata, in the privacy of their homes. Ironically it was easier for whites to play her music than it was for blacks, who were under much closer scrutiny by the police.

In 1968, Makeba married Trinidadian Stokely Carmichael who was the leader of the Black Panthers - a militant group formed to advance Black Power. The move prompted outrage among Americans and her record deals and tours were canceled. She and Carmichael went to live in Guinea, but the marriage did not last and the couple separated in 1973.

In 1990, Makeba was persuaded by former South African President Nelson Mandela to return to South Africa. But she was not always comfortable in her homeland, and at times expressed sadness that South Africans no longer appreciated her music.

But perhaps she was loved and appreciated more by her fellow citizens than she realized. A cursory check with music stores in Johannesburg revealed that many stock large selections of her CDs.

Tributes have poured in, and talk shows have been inundated with callers speaking of the impact her music had on them.

In his tribute, Mr. Mandela described her as South Africa's first lady of song, adding she was a mother to the struggle against apartheid, and became a mother to the young nation that is now South Africa. He said her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile but also inspired a powerful sense of hope.

Makeba, who was 76-years-old, had one daughter, Bongi, who predeceased her in 1985.