Miriam Makeba – Mama Africa
The many facets of Miriam Makeba’s personality are maybe best reflected in her nickname – Mama Africa. In addition to being a dedicated civil rights activist, South African born Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 – 10 November 2008) is recognized as having been the first artist to take the unique sounds of Africa to appreciative music lovers in a host of countries beyond the borders of her homeland.
Born in Johannesburg in 1932, Miriam’s talent became evident at a young age as she sang at weddings and social occasions. She was thirteen years old when she won first prize at a school talent show, and in 1952 she toured South Africa with the Manhattan Brothers. Arguably her most famous song, Pata Pata (Xhosa for “touch touch”) was recorded in 1956 and played on South African radio stations, bringing her talent to the attention of the nation.
In 1959, Miriam appeared in an anti-apartheid documentary called Come Back, Africa produced by American Lionel Rogosin. This proved to be her opportunity to break into the international entertainment world. She attended the 24th edition of the Venice Film Festival, where Come Back, Africa won the Critics’ Award. That same year she sang the female lead role in the musical King Kong alongside fellow South African Hugh Masekela, who later became her husband. She also appeared on the television variety program, the Steve Allen Show, where she was introduced to American viewers.
Miriam Makeba’s long and successful career included many highlights and noteworthy achievements. Her first US studio album, entitled simply Miriam Makeba, was released by RCA Records in 1960. In 1962 she teamed up with Harry Belafonte to sing at John F. Kennedy’s birthday party held at Madison Square Garden, and in 1963 she released her second RCA studio album, The World of Miriam Makeba. In 1966 her collaboration with Harry Belafonte on An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba received a Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording. The album highlighted the difficulties faced by black South Africans under the apartheid government, and included traditional Sotho, Zulu and Swahili songs. Pata Pata was released in the United States in 1967 and made it to the #12 slot on the renowned Billboard Hot 100. Miriam Makeba participated in the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988 at Wembley Stadium, which played to an audience of 600 million in 67 countries, calling for Mandela’s release from prison. She later starred in the film Sarafina!, based on the 1976 Soweto youth uprisings, bringing the injustices of the apartheid era to a world-wide audience.
Miriam Makeba’s firm, highly public stance against the apartheid system of the South African government at the time, resulted in the cancellation of her South African passport in the early 1960s, preventing her from returning to South Africa. She remained in exile until apartheid was abolished, returning home on June 10, 1990. On November 9, 2008, Miriam suffered a heart attack in Italy, after singing her signature song Pata Pata at a concert, making a stand against a mafia-type gang operating in the region of Campania. Right to the end, Mama Africa stood firm for justice.