Miriam Makeba, Mama Africa

by jdroth on 7 April 2011

In February, my wife and I took a vacation to southern Africa. As our bus drove through Soweto, our tour guide sang to us “The Click Song” from Miriam Makeba.

This song is a novelty to Western ears because it’s sung in Xhosa, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. (It’s spoken by about 18% of the South African population.) Xhosa features prominent click consonants, which most English speakers find odd.

Note: While in Africa, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to pronounce the Xhosa clicks. Here’s a great YouTube video from a Xhosa speaker that explains how to say click sounds.

I’m ashamed to say that in our group of 38 American tourists, nobody had ever heard of Miriam Makeba. One of the first things I did when I got home was to read more about her. Makeba was an awesome woman.

Born at the Wrong Time

Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg on 04 March 1932. As a girl, she attended the Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria (about 50km north of Johannesburg). While there, she sang in the choir.

Makeba started singing professionally with groups in South Africa’s black townships. In 1959, she played the lead in a “jazz opera” called King Kong. But Makeba found the recently-enacted apartheid system too oppressive. She felt stifled. She made a trip to Italy and decided not to return.

Background: In 1948, South Africa officially adopted the policy of apartheid, under which residential areas were segregated and most non-whites were formally stripped of many rights. These policies had existed informally for centuries; apartheid made them law.

In 1960 — shortly after the Sharpeville massacre — Makeba’s mother died. When she tried to return for the funeral, she learned that her passport had been canceled. Makeba became increasingly outspoken against South Africa’s racist policies. In 1963, she testified against apartheid before the United Nations in New York:

Makeba’s stand angered the South African government, and her citizenship was revoked. She found herself in exile.

“I always wanted to leave home. I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile.” — Miriam Makeba

The Length of Her Days

For the next thirty years, Makeba moved from country to country. For a time in the 1960s, she lived in the United States, where she worked with Harry Belafonte. Her services were in great demand. She performed for President Kennedy. She performed for the emperor of Ethiopia. She traveled the world, sharing the story of Africa in song.

Here’s a video clip from 1966, which includes the song “Khawuleza” and a 1966 interview about what it was like to be an entertainer under apartheid. (I’m not sure what the second song on this video is. Can anyone tell me?)

In 1968, when Makeba married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther movement, she found she could no longer get work in the U.S. She and Carmichael moved to Guinea, Africa. Despite being unwelcome in South Africa and the United States, she continued to build a career as a musician — and as a vocal opponent of racial discrimination.

In time, attitudes changed. During the mid-1980s, Makeba performed with Paul Simon on his Graceland tour. And on 10 June 1990, Makeba returned to South Africa on a French passport. Mama Africa, as she was now known, had finally come home.

“This is the story of how we begin to remember;
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein.”

— from “Under African Skies” by Paul Simon

Here’s Miriam Makeba singing “Pata Pata”, her most famous song, at the Cape Town Jazz Festival on 01 April 2006. She’s 74 years old at the time of this performance. The fans love her.

The quality of this video is poor, I know. Here’s a higher-quality recording of this song.

On 09 November 2008, Miriam Makeba collapsed on stage after a performance near Naples, Italy. She’d just finished singing “Pata Pata”. Mama Africa died of a heart attack at age 76.

Further Reading

For more on this awesome woman check out:

And don’t forget to browse through her music on YouTube.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cat April 14, 2011 at 16:13

So excited to see Miriam Makeba here! I have been a fan for decades, and had the privilege of seeing her perform live, along with Hugh Masekela and Sweet Honey in the Rock. I cannot recommend Sangoma highly enough. It isn’t typical of her work–it is a collection of songs from her homeland. Just beautiful, and it includes some Xhosa.


2 Sam April 15, 2011 at 08:29

Thank you for writing about Miriam Makeba! I have loved her since I first heard one of her songs on a North Exposure episode back in the early 90s. She is amazing!


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