Friday, November 14, 2008

Mama Africa makes her transition

As I was going through old mail in a document search for Miriam Makeba, I ran across mail sent this summer, a compilation of great sayings. One of them was a "Makeba." She said: "I look at a stream and I see myself: a native South African, flowing irresistibly over hard obstacles until they become smooth and, one day, disappear -- flowing from an origin that has been forgotten toward an end that will never be."

I remember seeing Miriam Makeba shortly before the first democratic election in South Africa at a club in San Francisco, then later at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The first concert was well attended and she spoke of being 60 or so and looking forward to returning home after many years in exile to exercise her constitutional right. The next time I saw her was in concert at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The event was poorly attended and there were no CDs to purchase. She invited the folks in the balcony to move down to fill in the orchestra section-the sparse numbers didn't deter from the enthusiasm in the audience or her performance. The last time I saw her was at Stern Grove in San Francisco when she was on a world tour, with a new CD, the first in many years. I stood in line to get an autograph and noticed how weary she seemed to be off stage, contrasted with her enormous energy on stage. The band was tight and from many places in Southern Africa. I think she had a couple of grand kids in the band too. It was certainly a moment to treasure. I recall going to bookstores looking for her autobiography, one of the first ones I'd ever read by a South African woman. Mama spoke of her first husband, who was a police officer and how he was physically abusive to her. She also wrote of her musical career, his jealousy and her eventual escape.

I found her sojourn inspiring. Hers was a life where obstacles were certainly seen as stepping stones. I also enjoyed Hugh Masekela's accounts of his marriage to Mama Africa in "Still Grazing," one where she used her creativity to organize support for the end to Aparthied and the only time I ever saw them on stage together, which was at the San Francisco event, where they both spoke about voting for the first time. My dad is the reason why I know South African music and by extension, South African history. She collapsed during a concert in Italy. It was a benefit concert. When I heard this, I thought to myself: she died doing what she loved for audiences who loved and appreciated her for her enormous sacrifice. Willie Mandela's autobiography, "Part of My Soul Went with Him," was the second book I read about life and politics in South Africa.

Born March 4, 1932, one could say Miriam Makeba popularized South African music, the first to win a Grammy Award. She gained popularity and her career soared in Sophiatown, an area just outside Johannesburg where Africans of all nationalities lived peacefully together. So well did they get along, the Boer government in enforcing its segregationist policies bulldozed the town and forced everyone to leave. This city and it legacy is documented well in the film, "Amandla: A Revolution in 4-Part Harmony (2002)," the story of South African Freedom Movement. (Visit

When Hugh Masekela speaks of her in his autobiography, it is with awe. He is her babysitter and eventually her husband--she sounds like the quentessential liberated woman. She took care of her countrymen and women, shared her resources with them: advice, money, etc.

Sporting a close-cropped Afro long before it became fashionable, Mama Makeba never compromised her principles. One always knew where he alligence lay. As President Nelson Mandela said in an article commemorating her life this week,"'Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.'

"He said it was 'fitting' that her last moments were spent on stage -- singing at a concert in solidarity with six immigrants from Ghana who were shot to death in September in the (Southern Italian town). Makeba collapsed after singing one of her most famous hits 'Pata Pata,'" her family said (Associated Press).

The article states that "in her dazzling career, Makeba performed with musical legends from around the world -- jazz maestros Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon -- and sang for world leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. Her distinctive style, which combined jazz, folk and South African township rhythms, managed to get her banned from South Africa for more than 30 years."

She was a remarkable woman who was proceeded in death by her only child, Bongi Makeba. I believe she leaves behind grandchildren, great grandchildren and many friends.



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