singer and cultural crusader Miriam Makeba, who died suddenly of a heart attack
Sunday night following a performance in Castel Volturno, Italy, is being
remembered as a performer who energized an African consciousness here in the
United States and more significantly gave hope to millions of her own
countrymen during the struggle against apartheid. Voice of America Africa music specialist Matthew Lavoie explains how in music and in life, Makeba
transmitted her unique brand of artistic authenticity.
in the 1950's, Miriam Makeba was a popular singer. Her material wasn't particularly political. In 1959, she starred in a documentary about
apartheid actually, which from there went to the Venice Film Festival. And it was during that trip that she went to
London and found that she was not welcomed back in South Africa. Harry Belafonte met her in London. They came to the United States, and really,
in the United States, she became the first African artist to become nationally
popular. Her song Pata Pata was
in the US top ten," he noted.
says Makeba's US popularity marked a huge triumph for establishing African
musical creativity in the popular American consciousness. It also led to her becoming identified as an
artist with a political message.
terms of politics, much like (Nelson) Mandela, her politics were not based on a
message of revenge or hatred, but were always based on a message that really
tried to push people throughout the world to live up to the best in human
nature. And this is something that she
really believed in and also sacrificed for throughout her career," he
affectionately billed as "Mama Africa" and the "Empress of African Song," South
African-born Makeba was the first African woman to receive a prestigious Grammy
award from the American recording industry (in 1966 together with Harry
Belafonte for Best Folk Recording for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba). Lavoie says although she frequently
collaborated with other notable musical luminaries like her former husband,
South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela, jazz greats Nina Simone and Dizzy
Gillespie, and on Paul Simon's 1987 Graceland tour of Southern Africa, Makeba
distinguished herself the most as a solo performer.
she was a great artist and a spirit open to collaboration, again, I think her
work as a solo artist stands above all the collaborations she did," notes Lavoie.
calling for a political boycott of South Africa in 1963 before the UN Special
Committee Against Apartheid, Miriam Makeba was stripped of her South African
citizenship and barred from returning home for about 30 years. Matthew Lavoie says her 1968 marriage to
black power activist Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame
Toure and moved with Makeba from the US to Guinea) transformed the artist into
a subject of continent-wide focus.
one of the few artists who not only spoke about pan-Africanism, but really
creatively invested herself and her entire career into being a pan-African
artist. And some of that was a creative
decision. Some of that was due to the
realities of her life. She was forced
into exile from South Africa, lived in the United States, and was more or less
forced out of the United States. The
government didn't say,'You have to leave.' But after she married Stokely
Carmichael, her record contract dried up, her concert appearances dried
up. And so she was more or less, to
continue having a career, forced to leave the country. And all these again political decisions had
artistic consequences," he said.
resuming and reviving her singing career after several interludes as an
international diplomat (for Guinea) and in other roles, Lavoie said Makeba
ultimately vowed to continue singing as long as she said she could.
was someone who genuinely believed in African independence, in African
intellectual creativity, both politically and artistically on the world stage,
and I think that she really tried to live that. Also, (Guinean President Ahmed) Sekou Toure welcomed Miriam
Makeba with open arms and she represented Guinea at the United Nations as a
political appointee. And so she was
really embraced by that country when other parts of the world wouldn't," he
Makeba at age 76 continued to appear
on stage. On Sunday evening in Italy,
she was appearing at a solidarity concert for a journalist covering the story
of six immigrants from Ghana who were recently shot to death by alleged mafia
gunmen during a reported drug-dealing dispute.
Matthew Lavoie says her sad farewell, just after singing one of her most
famous hits, Pata Pata, was characteristic of the way she lived her
"I actually watched a few clips of
performances from this past weekend, and the voice is still there. And even though reports have come out that
she had arthritis and was in a lot of pain, you would never know it if you were
sitting in the audience this weekend in Italy.
And she said so herself throughout her career, that the reason music
meant so much to her was that despite all the upheavals in her life and all the
different relocations in her life, the one place where she was always at home,
no matter what place she was in her life was when she was on stage," he