Miriam Makeba Biography

4 March 1932, Johannesburg, South Africa. d. 10 November 2008, Castel Volturno, Italy. The vocalist who first put African music on the international map in the 60s, Makeba began her professional career in 1950, when she joined Johannesburg group the Cuban Brothers. She came to national prominence during the mid-50s as a member of leading touring group the Manhattan Brothers, an 11-piece close harmony group modelled on African-American line-ups such as the Mills Brothers. She performed widely with the outfit in South Africa, Rhodesia and the Congo until 1957, when she was recruited as a star attraction in the touring package show African Jazz And Variety. She remained with the troupe for two years, again touring South Africa and neighbouring countries, before leaving to join the cast of the ‘township musical’ King Kong, which also featured such future international stars as Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa. By now one of South Africa’s most successful performers, Makeba was nonetheless receiving just a few dollars for each recording session, with no additional provision for royalties, and was increasingly keen to settle in the USA. The opportunity came following her starring role in American film maker Lionel Rogosin’s documentary Come Back Africa, shot in South Africa. When the Italian government invited Makeba to attend the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in spring 1959, she privately decided not to return home.

Shortly afterwards, furious at the international furore created by the film’s powerful exposé of apartheid, her South African passport was withdrawn. In London after the Venice Festival, Makeba met Harry Belafonte, who offered to help her gain an entry visa and work permit to the USA. Arriving in New York in autumn 1959, Belafonte further assisted Makeba by securing her a guest spot on the popular Steve Allen Show and an engagement at the prestigious Manhattan jazz club, the Village Vanguard. As a consequence of this exposure, Makeba became a nationally feted performer within a few months of arriving in the USA, combining her musical activities - major chart hits such as ‘Pata Pata’, ‘The Click Song’ and ‘Malaika’ - with outspoken denunciations of apartheid. In 1963, after an impassioned testimony before the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid, all her records were banned from South Africa. Married for a few years to fellow South African émigré Masekela, in 1968 Makeba divorced him in order to marry the Black Panther activist Stokeley Carmichael - a liaison that severely damaged her following among older white American record buyers. Promoters were no longer interested, and tours and record contracts were cancelled.

Consequently, she and Carmichael, from whom she is now divorced, moved to Guinea in West Africa. Fortunately, Makeba continued to find work outside the USA, and during the 70s and 80s spent most of her time on the international club circuit, primarily in Europe, South America and Africa. She has also been a regular attraction at world jazz events such as the Montreux International Jazz Festival, the Berlin Jazz Festival and the North Sea Jazz Festival. In 1977, she was the unofficial South African representative at the pan-African festival of arts and culture, FESTAC, in Lagos, Nigeria. In 1982, she was reunited with Masekela at a historic concert in Botswana. As was previously the case in the USA, Makeba combined her professional commitments with political activity, and served as a Guinean delegate to the United Nations. In 1986, she was awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in recognition of this work. In 1987, Makeba was invited to appear as a guest artist on Paul Simon’s tour, which included emotional returns to the USA and Zimbabwe (she had been banned from the country, then known as Rhodesia, in 1960). While some anti-apartheid activists, mostly white Westerners, criticized her for allegedly breaking the African National Congress’ cultural boycott by working with Paul Simon (whose Graceland had been part-recorded in South Africa), Makeba convincingly maintained that the Graceland package was substantially helping the anti-apartheid movement by drawing attention to the culture and plight of black South Africans. Since the political climate has changed, Makeba has revelled in a career now free of exile and threats. "Mama Africa" could justifiably hold her head up having won the cause that she spent 30 years of her life proclaiming in exile.

Makeba continued to perform and stand up to forces of injustice up until her death. Shortly after performing at an anti-Mafia concert in Southern Italy in November 2008, the grand dame of African jazz passed away of a heart attack at age 76.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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