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Miriam Makeba 

As we continue to observe Jazz Appreciation Month, it is important to remember that JAM 2011 is dedicated to the legacy of Women in Jazz. Women have been involved with Jazz since its inception, but very often, their achievements are not well known, and the value of their contribution is overlooked and not given due representation. This year’s celebration of women in jazz is therefore noteworthy and commendable, as it will give us a chance to know a little but more about some special women who are icons of music and jazz. In our last contribution, we did a little piece on Mary Lon Williams and Ella Fitzerald, we will now continue this momentum by bringing the discussion closer to home, and pay tribute to Africa’s contribution to jazz with a feature on Miriam Makeba of South Africa.

Before we explore the life and work of Miriam Makeba, let us take a brief look at the evolution of what is now called Jazz - the music of jazz was founded in the southern part of the United States in the 1800’s and in the early years, it was spelt “Jass”. The word Jazz began as west coast slang and was first used to refer to music from Chicago around 1915. Jazz almost defies definition, as there are many types and styles of it. Its original style was a combination of ragtime (piano) music with experimental orchestral techniques, with its cultural origins being New Orleans, Louisiana in early 1910’s. Its stylistic origins also include the blues, folk music and the marching band.

Jazz originated at the beginning of the 20th Century in Afro American communities in Southern, United States, and was born from a confluence of African and European music. The combination of an already established African American population with influence from Carribean and Mexican merchants began to integrate with the popular brass bands of that time in Louisiana and other Southern States. As the sound began to travel in the US in the 1920’s, it became popular in big cities such as New York and Chicago, due to a large extent to the advent of radio and live performances in Jazz clubs.   

The music of jazz is unique for its loose rules, which allows it to be flexible and therefore viable for audience of all ages. As the music has spread around the world, it has drawn on local, national and regional musical cultures, its aesthetics, being adapted to its varied environments giving rise to many distinctive styles. The roots of jazz are found in the sounds of West Africa, typified by the use of drums and singing. Ripped by the slave trade and forbidden to play the drums or speak their native languages, African Americans preserved a common thread from the aesthetics’ of African music. These threads expressed themselves in the blues, gospel music and ultimately jazz. Various jazz musicians have travelled to Africa in search of new inspiration from the vitality of African music. Louis Armstrong visited Ghana in 1956. With the roots of jazz traced to Africa, and this year’s celebration being in honour of women in jazz, it is only fitting that we play tribute to Africa’s first lady of song, Miriam Makeba – popularly known as Mama Africa.

Her birth name is Zenzile Miriam Makeba, she was born in Prospect Township, Johannesburg, South Africa on March 4th 1932. She is popular and well known because of her work as a South African singer and civil rights activist. She was the first African artist to popularize African music in the US and around the world, and won the prestigious Grammy award with Harry Balafoute Fox the album “An evening with Belafonte/ Makeba” recorded in 1966.

Miriam also toured and recorded with a host of world-renowned artists such as Paul Simon and Dizzi Gillespie. She also toured and recorded with another South African music icon Hugh Masekela who would become her husband in the early years of her career as a musician. She was a vocal critic of Apartheid and actively campaigned against the system, which led the Apartheid regime to revoke her citizenship, and banned her from her own country. After the end of Apartheid, Miriam returned home with honor and dignity and was given a hero’s welcome by Nelson Mandela and a free South Africa. She died on November 10th 2008 in Castel Voltumo, Italy while performing at a benefit concert for writer Roberto Saviano.

Miriam’s musical career lasted from 1954 to 2008 and her first exposure was with the South Africa Jazz Band the Manhattan Brothers. She would later leave the group to record with her own all woman group called The Skylarks, singing a blend of jazz and traditional melodies of South Africa. Her hit song “Pata Pata” was recorded in 1957 and released in the US ten years later in 1967. Although she was ten considered a successful recording artist, she was only receiving a few dollars for each recording session with no payment for provisional royalties. As a result, she was keen to leave South Africa and pursue a professional artist career in the US and Europe.

In 1959, Miriam made a cameo appearance in an antiapartheid documentary film called “Come Back, Africa” produced by an Independent American filmmaker Lionel Rogasin. Her appearance received rave reviews and she made an enormous impression on viewers and critics, which motivated Rogasin to arrange a visa for Miriam to attend the Première of the film won the critics award. She would later sing the lead female role in the Broadway musical “King Kong” alongside her partner and fellow South African –Hugh Masekela. Her first appearance in the US was in November 1959 on the Steve Allen TV show.

During the same year, Miriam travelled to London where she met Harry Belafoute who assisted her to gain entry into the US where she would fine fame and more success. She made her first US studio album in 1960 with RCA Records entitled – “Miriam Makeba”. In 1962, Makeba and Belafoute sang at the birthday party of US President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York. In 1963, she released her second album for RCA entitled – “The World of Miriam Makeba” and later that year, she testified against apartheid before the United Nations. As a result of this testimony, the South African government revoked her citizenship and right to return home. She would become a woman with no country, but the world became her country and in her lifetime, she was granted honorary citizenship to ten countries and had nine passports.

Miriam made her first club appearance at the “Village Vanguard” in New York. Her fame and reputation grew and she went on to release a few more hit songs including “The Click Song called “(Qong qothwane” in her native tongue of Xhosa) and “Malaika”. It was during this time that Newsweek compared her voice to “the smoky tones and delicates phrasing of Ella Fitzerald. She was proud of her African heritage and in spite of her success and stardom, she wore on makeup and refused to curl her hair for shows. When the single song “Pata Pata” was released in the US in 1967, it became worldwide hit and opened the door for more success.

However, her marriage to Stokely Carmichael (former black panther) in 1968 caused a lot of controversy in the US, which led to the cancellation, her record deals and tours. She then decided to leave the US and with her husband, they moved to Guinea where she would become very close to President Sekon Toure and his wife Andree. Guinea would be her home for the next fifteen years and she was appointed Guinea’s official delegate to the United Nations. As a result of her diligence at the UN, she was awarded the “Dag Hammarskjold Peace Proze.” She spared with Carmichael in 1973 and continued to perform mainly in Africa and Europe.

After the death of her only daughter Bongi, Miriam moved to Brussels. It was during this period that she was introduced to Paul Simonby Hugh Masekela. Together, they embarked on a very successful Graceland tour which was filmed and released as – Graceland: The African Concert. Luck would come her way again, and after touring with Paul Simon, she was signed by Warner Brothers and the Album “Sangoma (Healer)” was released. In 1988 she took part in the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute held at Wembley Stadium. This concert was also called “Free Nelson Mandela Concert” and was the calatyst for the free Nelson Mandela movement which would become international and eventually successful.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and soon after, persuaded Miriam to return home, which she did, travelling on her French passport. In 1991, with Dizzi Gillespie, Nina Simone and Masekela, she recorded the album “Eyes on Tomorrow”. The album is a combination of jazz, RnB, pop and African music and was a hit in Africa. She toured with Dizzi worldwide to promote the album and would make a guest appearance on the Cosby Show later that year. In 1992, she stared in the film, “Sarafina” which is a movies about the Soweto Uprisings. The following year, she released “Sing Me A Song”. In 2000, she released the album “Homeland” on the Putumayo label and was nominated for a Grammy in the world music category. In 2004, Miriam was voted 38th in the top 100 great South Africans. She started a worldwide farewell tour in the same year holding concerts in all those countries she had visited during her working life. It was during one of those concerts when she died in 2008.

 Mahtarr E Njai


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