The long goodbye

Miriam Makeba is both a fighter and a legend, with one of the most remarkable stories in the history of African music. She was the continent’s first superstar, although she was exiled and banned from South Africa, her homeland, for more than 30 years.

She addressed the United Nations, sang for President Kennedy, was granted honorary citizenship of 10 different countries, but scared off American promoters when she married black power activist Stokely Carmichael and moved to Guinea in the late 1960s.

Invited back to South Africa by Nelson Mandela in 1990, Africa’s greatest diva has continued to perform her unique blend of rousing township styles and jazz-influenced balladry, despite an announcement three years ago that she was to retire. ”I did say that,” she said, ”but everybody keeps calling and saying ‘You have not come to say goodbye to us!”’ She is, she reminded me, now 76 and suffering from osteoarthritis.

But she is still in great voice, even though performing is clearly no longer always easy. Playing in northern Italy last month she used a stick as she came on stage for the soundcheck, during which she sang seated on a stool. Yet for the live show, in which she was backed by her impressive, far younger band, she was completely different, actually dancing to some of her upbeat township songs and then switching to a thrilling, unaccompanied treatment of the ballad Oh So Alone, which she first recorded in the mid-1960s. Afterwards, she admitted the concert was a difficult experience. ”I couldn’t breathe and I was struggling. But I’d rather cancel a show than go on stage and sit in a chair or walk on with a stick.”

Mama Africa, as she became known, saw her international acclaim contrast with an often pained personal life, in which she has survived cancer, four divorces (including the break-up of marriages to both Hugh Masekela and Carmichael) and the death of her daughter. Her father died when she was five and she had to leave school to ”work as a maid and a nanny to little white kids, and help my mother when her white employers allowed me to go where she was living”. But she loved singing, listening to local stars such as her heroine Dolly Rathebe (whose songs are still part of her repertoire) as well as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. She started working with local Johannesburg bands and at 21 was invited to join South Africa’s 1950s superstars, the Manhattan Brothers. With them, she travelled to Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo, and first met Nelson Mandela, ”though I was just a little girl and would go and sit in a corner when they were talking to him”.

The little girl rapidly became a star in her own right, moving on to lead a highly successful girl group, the Skylarks, and star in the ”jazz opera” King Kong. In 1959 she was invited to Venice for the premiere of the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back Africa, in which she sang a few songs. In London she was asked to sing Back of the Moon from King Kong on the BBC radio show In Town Tonight ”because Sputnik had just hit the back of the moon”, and there she met her ”big brother”, the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, who advised her and helped launch her career in the United States.

She became famous for her blend of township styles and jazz, though she still insisted she didn’t ”know what jazz is” — she just sang songs. She also became known for her furious attacks on apartheid after the South African government refused to allow her home in 1960 following the death of her mother. ”I said to them, ‘What did I do? I never killed anybody. I was never arrested for anything bad, so why can’t I go home?’

”I’m not a political singer,” she insisted. ”I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us — especially the things that hurt us.”

Under Belafonte’s guidance Makeba discovered and conquered the US. In 1962 the two sang at John F Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden. Makeba, ill with a fever, didn’t go to the aftershow party. But Kennedy insisted on meeting her, ”so Belafonte sent his people to pick me up and I went back and shook his hand, then went back to my little flat. I was very happy to have met a president of the United States — little me!”

It was through Belafonte that Makeba first met the far more radical civil rights activist Carmichael, to whom she became engaged after they were both invited to visit the west African state of Guinea. It was then that the American entertainment industry suddenly turned against her.

So she and Carmichael went to live in Guinea, where President Sékou Touré was determined to create a new African style by using Western instruments to modernise traditional songs. To promote his policy of authenticité, musicians were given a regular wage, like civil servants, ”so their job was to rehearse every day from nine until three”. Makeba joined in, working alongside local stars such as Bembeya Jazz, ”and when the president’s visitors came to Guinea we were all called on to go and entertain them. I’ve never seen a country that did what Sékou Touré did for artists. Even in South Africa today we are not nurtured like that.”

Makeba had clear views on why young South Africans have failed to make the same impact in the West as she did, or other veterans such as Hugh Masekela or Ladysmith Black Mambazo. ”It’s because they want to sound like Americans. I’d like to see them develop our music and sing it their way. They have beautiful voices, but they want to sound like Whitney Houston. You can’t beat people like that at their own game. And they can’t beat me at mine, either!”

This interview appeared in The Guardian in May 2008

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