/ 12 May 2000

Return of Mama Afrika

Born in a township, she spent her first six months in jail with her mother. As a successful singer forced into exile by Pretoria, she became a symbol of resistance. Now back home and with a new album, she has become a totem of the African renaissance

Maya Jaggi

When Miriam Makeba left South Africa in 1959 for the Venice film festival, she had no intention of going into exile. She was just one of many deemed a threat by the apartheid regime who found their way home barred by Pretoria. Yet when in 1990 the singer finally ended an exile spanning three decades, she returned not simply as the popular “nightingale” she had left as, but as an icon of resistance and survival.

“Having been banned from going home for so long, and my music banned on the air waves, I didn’t realise people still remembered me,” she recalls. “I was surprised to find younger people knowing who I was through their parents, even though they couldn’t openly play my records. People hugged me in the streets and said: ‘I went to jail for playing your records.’ They brought their children; everywhere I went, kids were shouting: ‘Mama Afrika! Mama Afrika!'”

The woman who became known as Mama Afrika was the first South African performer to reach international stardom, and the rare celebrity for whom “overnight success” was no hyperbole. Within a few months of leaving South Africa, the “Click click girl” – so dubbed for her Xhosa Click Song – had been fted at the Venice film festival for her role in the township documentary Come Back, Africa; had sung before 60- million American TV viewers on the Steve Allen Show; and had thrilled the likes of Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Count Basie, Miles Davis and Sidney Poitier at New York’s Village Vanguard jazz club. She went on to sing at John F Kennedy’s birthday in 1962 on the same bill as Marilyn Monroe.

The first African recording artist to win a Grammy award, for An Evening with Harry Belafonte in 1965, and the first to have a top 10 worldwide hit, with Pata Pata in 1967, she is credited with opening Western ears to African music, helping inaugurate the burgeoning and hugely lucrative “world music” industry. Makeba used her rising fame to focus the world’s eyes on apartheid well before South Africa became a fashionable cause, firing an opening salvo in 1963 in the campaign to isolate Pretoria, at the United Nations. She was awarded the Dag Hammarskjld peace prize in 1986.

She survived personal turmoil in exile: car crashes and a plane crash in Guinea, cancer, four divorces and the deaths of her only child and a grandson. Yet she wrote in her 1988 autobiography, Makeba: My Story: “My life, my career, every song I sing and every appearance I make, are bound up with the plight of my people.”

In her present role as an elder stateswoman, Makeba was in October made an ambassador for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, lobbying for the world’s hungry, and she raises funds for women’s causes and Aids awareness in Africa. She also signed this year with the world music label Putumayo and, at 68, has just released Homeland, her first studio recording in six years and her first album in almost 10 years in the United States, where she begins a tour in July. Until she returned there in the late 1980s with Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland tour, she had in effect suffered political exile not only from South Africa but also from the US, after her marriage to the black nationalist leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968, and was obliged to make her home in West Africa. In her moves across continents, her career has been enmeshed not only with her own country’s liberation but with the eras of US civil rights and black power, decolonisation and Pan-Africanism.

Hugh Masekela, the trumpeter who learned his craft on an instrument donated to township talent by Louis Armstrong, and a former husband of Makeba, says in Johannesburg: “Miriam is very honest; she doesn’t bite her tongue. She was the first person to make the world aware of what was really happening here, when it had been a secret of South Africa and its allies – she blew it wide open. She converted artistes overseas who were tremendously influential, and she stayed with the struggle to the detriment of a lucrative career – despite intelligence surveillance, opposition from the Western establishment in alliance with South Africa and attempts to discredit her. She sacrificed a huge earning power to the struggle.”

Her presence abroad also paved the way for the growing number of South African artists and musicians who went into exile as repression worsened, notably with the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the forced removals, which destroyed communities such as Sophia-town. Masekela says: “Miriam was responsible for my career, and for those of [trombonist] Jonas Gwangwa, [singer-songwriter] Caiphus Semenya and many others. She brought us to the US and gave us a foothold.”

While Makeba sang many liberation songs, her music acquired a potent symbolism whatever its theme – both internationally and in South Africa, where it was sold under the counter. Mandla Langa, a writer who was the African National Congress-in- exile’s cultural attach in western Europe, now chair of the Independent Broadcasting Trust, says: “It’s impossible to overstate how much of a role model Miriam Makeba became. The rarity of her records inside the country meant they were disseminated far and wide by underground means. If the cops found you with the music of Makeba, they would throw you in jail. Because the regime was aware of what she was doing outside, her music was seen as subversive – even if she was singing a love song.”

Perhaps partly in response to the furore her stances have often provoked, Makeba is wary of political affiliation. “I was always indexed as this artist singing politics,” she says. “But as my daughter once said, it was my country that forced me to sing about what was going on. I sing about life as it is to me and to all those who lived around me. People are more likely to listen to an artist than a politician.”

She received an affectionate ovation at the Barbican in London last month on stage with rising generations of South African divas – Busi Mhlongo, Sibongile Khumalo and Gloria Bosman – and with her granddaughter Zenzi, with whom she sings on her new album.

She was born Zenzile Makeba in 1932 in Prospect, a Johannesburg township that no longer exists. She describes her early years as “no different from any other childhood in the townships”. Her Swazi mother Christina, who became a sangoma, or traditional healer, sold cornmeal brew, umqombethi, when it was illegal to sell alcohol to “natives”. When she was arrested in a raid, Miriam, only 18 days old, spent her first six months in jail.

Her father, Caswell, a schoolteacher and a Cape Xhosa, died when she was five. “My mother was a very strong woman and raised her six children – me last – working as a domestic servant.” Separated from her mother, who was quartered in the white homes where she worked, Makeba lived with her grandmother in Pretoria, the youngest of 21 cousins.

Makeba left mission school to work as a maid, nanny and laundress. Pregnant with her daughter Bongi at 17, she married the father, James Kubay, a trainee policeman who beat her and slept with her sister. The marriage lasted two years. Yet defending her first husband’s line of work, Makeba flashes with sudden fury: “Those were the only jobs reserved for blacks – a policeman or a teacher told what the hell they have to teach. Policemen who were black were told to beat on their own people to show how good they were. It was a system imposed on us; we were not allowed to study dentistry or aviation.”

Baptised a Protestant, Makeba first sang in church choirs – multilingual hymns and “seditious songs” in Xhosa, Sotho or Zulu. “I sang in English before I could speak it.”

Makeba’s generation, though, was the last before “Bantu education” – introduced by the National Party in 1955 to train black children for subservience – ended English as a medium of instruction and schools became arenas of revolt. “When I was in school under the British we learned ‘royal English’, when the system was separate but more or less equal. Under the Afrikaners [in power from 1948] it became separate and unequal.”

Her father had played the piano and composed, a factor in her mother’s indulgence of Miriam’s choice of what was then a risque vocation. “There was always opposition in the community to girls being on stage, but my mother said, if that’s what she likes, I’ll encourage her.” Her first role, at 18, was with the Cuban Brothers (“the name was a fantasy; no one was from Cuba”), “happy amateurs” led by her cousin in Johannesburg. Within two years she was a vocalist for the country’s most famous township group, the Manhattan Brothers – using the English name she used at school, Miriam – and recording and touring.

Makeba, who followed the female jazz stars Dolly Rathebe and Dorothy Masuka, emerged from a classic jazz era in the “fabulous decade” of the 1950s, when there was still hope of appealing to the liberal conscience within the country, and before the hotbed of jazz, Sophia- town, was bulldozed to make way for a white suburb. Although tsotsis made the townships hazardous – sometimes fighting over Makeba and other singers – she recalls a humiliating contrast between the musicians’ fame there and the pass laws that meant they often ended the night in the cells.

Trevor Herman of Stern’s African Records in London, who left South Africa in the 1970s, says: “Because of apartheid, black music was considered ‘inferior’ by the white authorities and left alone, so township jive grew. South Africa was always exposed to Western influences as the most industrialised country in Africa, so American records came in; many professional musicians began by playing straight American jazz. Then the migrant labourers wanted something more rootsy, so you got urban jive and marabi. Music wasn’t compartmentalised; Makeba would have listened to both.”

Nor was music divorced from protest and resistance. Masekela explains: “There is no ceremony or social occasion in South Africa that is not accompanied by song; it’s a major part of our life, so it was natural to include it in our struggle. It goes back 300 years to the colonial wars; no country has more battle songs.” In June 1955 Makeba performed at Kliptown, where she met the lawyer Nelson Mandela (“a bearded young man with a kind, round face”) as the Freedom Charter was being adopted by opposition groups. While in Pollsmoor prison in 1986, Mandela described his thoughts on that meeting: “When I looked at that little girl, I always knew that she was going to be someone.”

Gallotone Records cut an English version of her first solo hit. (She received only session fees – “we’d never heard of royalties” – as the musicians’ union was for whites only.) But the Xhosa lyrics of a man searching for his lover in hospitals and jails were replaced with the innocuously vapid: “You tell such lovely lies with your two lovely eyes.” Released in the US in 1956, Lovely Eyes was the first South African record to enter the Billboard Top 100. Gallotone then created the Skylarks, a girl group led by Makeba.

Rob Allingham, a music historian and archivist for Gallo Africa in Johannesburg, sees the Skylarks as “real trendsetters, with harmonisation that had never been heard before. Makeba’s music, even at its most African, was a mixture of indigenous elements and a vocal style based on African-American secular harmonies, as popularised by the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers and the Andrews Sisters.”

Makeba’s renown spread to white audiences in South Africa with King Kong, a “jazz opera” about the legendary boxer Ezekiel Dlamini. Makeba left in August for the premier in Venice of Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid documentary by the US film-maker Lionel Rogosin, in which she made a brief though sparkling appearance. “I never went into exile,” she says. “I left home to represent a film in which I only sang two songs that had nothing to do with politics. But I did suffer from being in that film.”

After a spell in London, where she appeared on TV and met jazz performers including Cleo Laine, Makeba became a protege in the US of singer Harry Belafonte, known affectionately to her as “my big brother”. He invited friends to Manhattan’s Village Vanguard to hear her. But when her mother died in 1960, she was prevented from returning to visit her grave. Though she had made no overt political statement, the authorities stamped her passport “invalid”. “It was the most painful moment of my life. What was to be four weeks in the US resulted in 10 years.”

Makeba arrived when many Americans’ image of Africa was confined to Tarzan movies. An early exemplar of “black is beautiful”, she is often credited with popularising the afro – “letting our hair be itself”. She recalls: “They said, hey, she’s beautiful – no makeup. I’ve always had the short-hair look. Other artists had it – Nina Simone, Cicely Tyson – and it started taking off. But it wasn’t a fashion to me.”

With decolonisation gathering pace in the 1960s, and African nationalism spreading to African-Americans, “I became a diplomat”, she says. “Belafonte talked about civil rights in his country and in our country. He used to say, we’re not angels, but you represent a troubled country. You mustn’t do wild things you can be too ashamed of, because one day you’ll be able to speak, and people will listen.”

In 1963 Makeba made her landmark plea for sanctions against Pretoria and the release of thousands of political prisoners, before the UN special committee against apartheid. She spoke at the UN again the following year, and in the mid-1970s. Two of her uncles had died at Sharpeville, yet she says: “You have to be calm if you want people to listen. I make my pleas at the UN as calmly as when I sing a song.”

The speech led to Pretoria banning her records. Makeba, meanwhile, survived cervical cancer by having a hysterectomy at the age of 31. “I was told I’d die in six months. No one’s ever cried so much for their own death. I was alone in America, though I had support from Sidney Poitier and Belafonte’s wife. Marlon Brando brought me flowers.”

Makeba had had a three-month marriage in London in 1959 to the Indian South African singer Sonny Pillay. In 1964, she married Masekela, whom she had known since childhood. The exiled couple lived in New Jersey (next door to Dizzy Gillespie) though they divorced within two years. “I grew up with him, then we went our separate ways, then came together and got married. Maybe we shouldn’t have, but we’re still close, like brother and sister. When we work together we’re dynamite.”

As Makeba was enjoying huge commercial success with her dance hit Pata Pata, in 1968 her fourth marriage, to Carmichael, changed her fortunes. Some saw it as cementing an alliance between “two black worlds – the old and the new”, giving the black nationalist Carmichael an African identity. But Makeba objects sassily: “He was a handsome and very brilliant young man who wanted the best for his people. And I was a beautiful and talented woman. People had their interpretation of why we were together but it’s all wrong. We were together because we loved each other.”

The union brought FBI surveillance (“our babysitters”), and immense hostility among Americans appalled by Carmichael’s “I got me a gun” speech after King’s assassination. He was also persona non grata in Britain and the Commonwealth. US bookings were widely cancelled and those in Britain dried up until the Greater London Council invited Makeba to perform in the mid-Eighties. Her recordings stopped, despite her insistence that “I’m a singer, not a revolutionary”, and “I’ve never been Mrs Anybody – I am Ms Makeba.” She says: “People tried to ostracise me but they didn’t succeed – I’m still here. It did have its effect, but it didn’t stop me from being who I am.”

Makeba and Carmichael moved to Guinea, where President Skou Tour made her an honorary citizen in 1968. She ran her own nightclub, the Zambezi, in Conakry, and drove around the capital in an imported London taxicab. “Guinea was wonderful. They were playing Cuban music, Zairean music, but the emphasis was on Guinean music. I learned that you can sing in English or Spanish, but you must know and develop your own culture first.”

She became a UN diplomat for Guinea, giving speeches in New York, and surviving the death of her sponsor Tour and a subsequent coup. She was granted citizenship of many other newly independent countries (“I had nine passports. It was a tradition; become free and have Miriam come and sing”). She defends herself against criticism that she lent support to dictators, such as President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Flix Houphout-Boigny of Ivory Coast: “Skou Tour once said to me, ‘You’re an African artist; you must never refuse to go to any African country that invites you, because you express things in your songs; you must direct them to the people.’ So I’ll go to a country dubbed a dictatorship. I’m African; I’ll sing to my brothers and sisters.”

The exposure helped Makeba make her first US release in some 20 years, the a cappella album Sangoma, a return to her choral roots. It was followed by Welela, which used South African musicians after years of her playing with mainly US or Guinean backing groups.

Makeba, divorced from Carmichael after 10 years, had left Guinea when her daughter Bongi, herself a budding singer, died in 1985 aged 35, after having a stillborn child. Bongi’s previous child had died aged three of unknown causes, and Bongi had been mentally ill, prone to “sudden rages” and abusiveness. “I had only one child, and she died,” Makeba murmurs. “I moved because I couldn’t take being there, I was so hurt.” Bongi’s surviving children, Zenzi and Lumumba, both perform with Makeba.

Her fifth husband, a Guinean named Bageot Bah, was an executive for a Belgian airline, and Makeba moved to Brussels. After Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990 (“He called me and said, when are you coming home?”) she returned for the first time in 31 years. “I went straight to my mother’s grave and, like a baby sitting on its mother’s lap, I just wept.”

She moved back permanently after her first “reunion” concert here in 1991 (“It was like a revival; it was beautiful not having to explain my African songs”), and is setting up a home for destitute girls in a former miners’ hostel (“How can they call me Mama Afrika and I not leave anything for the children?”), and organi-sing musicians involved in the Kora awards (“Africa’s Grammys”) to raise money for HIV awareness.

Her survival owes much to the collective salve of her music. “Thank God I had a voice, and a talent,” she reflects. “And my songs -when you sing them, you get strength from them and hope.”

Life at a glance

Zenzile Miriam Makeba

Born: March 4 1932, Prospect township, Johannesburg.

Education: Methodist Training school, Pretoria.

Married: 1950-52 James Kubay (one daughter, Bongi, died 1985); 1959 Sonny Pillay; 1964-66 Hugh Masekela; 1968-78 Stokely Carmichael; 1980-Bageot Bah.

Career: 1950 Cuban Brothers; 1952 Manhattan Brothers; 1956 African Jazz and Variety Show; 1957 Skylarks; 1958 film Come Back, Africa; 1959 opera King Kong; 1960 citizenship revoked; 1962 JFK birthday concert; 1963 sanctions plea to UN; 1975 UN speech as Guinean diplomat; 1987-88 Graceland tour; 1991 reunion tour; 1995 Christmas in the Vatican; 1999 ambassador for UN’s FAO.

Some albums: Miriam Makeba, 1960; The World of Miriam Makeba, 1962; The Click Song, 1965; Sangoma, 1988; Welela, 1989; Eyes on Tomorrow, 1991; Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks (reissue), 1991; The Best of Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks, 1998; Live from Paris and Conakry, 1998; Homeland, 2000.

Autobiography: Makeba: My Story (with James Hall), 1988.