Miriam Makeba says farewell to the international stage

After a career of more than 50 years, South Africa’s legendary singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba has decided she will end her performing days with a farewell international tour that starts in Johannesburg on Monday.

“I have to go and say farewell to all the countries that I have been to, if I can. I am 73 now, it is taxing on me,” Makeba said in an interview with Agence France Presse while she prepared for the first concert.

Her voice has lost nothing as she sings the hit Pata Pata, which has excited generations around the world, neither has her sense of timing which she marks with her elegant but simple shoes.

“I don’t want to travel as much as I have been. But as long as I’ll have my voice, I’ll keep on recording,” said the singer who won a Grammy award in 1966 for best folk recording with Harry Belafonte for the album An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba and performed with Paul Simon on his Graceland tour in the mid-1980s.

A new album will be released “very soon” with a new version of Malaika, another hit which she reworks with the South African Miagi Orchestra, conducted by the Argentine maestro Dante Anzolini and with whom she will perform at the Johannesburg concert and another in Cape Town on September 29.

“Makeba doesn’t know where ‘doe’ is, where ‘re’ is, so you have to be patient” she admitted to the stupefied young musicians of Miagi, with whom she is making the farewell tour, due to wrap up sometime next year.

“After, I will stay at home and be the great-grandmother that I am.”

Then she admitted with a burst of laughter, that she “has a lot” of record projects: “I want also to rework some of my early songs.”

It’s difficult to imagine Makeba giving up live performances.

However her South African concerts will definitely be “the beginning of the grand finale”, said Robert Brooks, director of Miagi.

To sing in her own country with such an orchestra, is however, a first.

“I was so scared.
Such a big orchestra” Makeba said with a smile, relieved after the first practice.

But a professional in every way, she carefully welcomes suggestions, repeating, as many times as necessary, each melody. At the break, far from playing the star, Makeba relaxes… surprising everyone with a bewitching a capella of Liwawechi, quickly joined by the drums of her loyal percussionist Papa Kouyate, whom she met by chance during her travels.

Leaving South Africa on tour in 1959, Makeba, who “never sang of politics, only the truth”, paid with 31 years of exile for her commitment to human rights. Having condemned apartheid all the way to the United Nations, she was banished and didn’t see her hometown Johannesburg until the freeing of Nelson Mandela in 1990.

“Mama Africa” sang about all the independence struggles of the continent. “People gave me that name. At first I said to myself: ‘Why do they want to give me that responsibility, carrying a whole continent?’ Then I understood that they did that affectionately. So I accepted. I am Mama Africa.”

Makeba says she is “very happy in my new South Africa”, but is aware of the problems.

“We have only had 11 years of democracy but we are moving, we are moving forward faster than many countries who have been independent a long, long time before. We all have to do it together, all of us, found ourselves this country regardless we are black, white or whatever!”.

As part of this work, Makeba has founded a centre for the rehabilitation of youths from the street, introducing them to performing music.

“They all have a lot of talent. When they sing, ouah, they sing! When they dance, haaa, they dance! I really think that the next performers could be among those girls.”

The next Makeba? “No, nobody can replace me as I can’t replace anyone else,” said the singer, who wants to leave a memory of, simply, a “very good old lady”. - Sapa-AFP

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