There is no way you can see one of her performances of “Pata Pata” on television and not be entranced by her beauty, her lovely voice, her elegance and her charm.
March 4 was the 86th anniversary of Miriam Makeba’s birth. She always had a love for performing, according to her sisters and brothers. She would sing traditional songs as her mother played the drum at their home in Prospect Township, near Johannesburg. Her brothers recalled an eight year old Miriam singing pop songs to entertain them. Her church choir director, Mr. Mutuba, remembered handing the child a microphone and asking her to sing a solo. The whole church congregation became silent and listened, transfixed.
Miriam married very young and gave birth to her only child, Bongi Makela in 1950. The marriage did not last. As an adult Miriam sang with The Manhattan Brothers and The Cuban Brothers, her own band The Skylarks (recording under the name The Sunbeams) and performed traditional songs, jazz, and protest songs in shebeens and elsewhere, singing in Setswana and IsiXhosa. It was risky to do so during apartheid. This was a fortuitous thing for her career, however, since this brought her to the attention of well-regarded American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. His crew filmed Come Back, Africa in a stealth fashion. Rogosin knew an anti-apartheid drama about a black worker would not be permitted, so he described the film to authorities as a musical travelogue about Johannesburg and the countryside. Come Back, Africa told the story of a poor man who comes to a gold mine seeking work. Rogosin arranged after completion of the documentary for Miriam to leave South Africa and come to America.
Come Back, Africa, which came to North America at the Vancouver Film Festival, made Miriam an international celebrity. She appeared on the American television show The Ed Sullivan Show, at the time a major showcase for new talent, and other popular variety shows of the time such as The Hollywood Palace. She worked with music producer Bob Ballard to produce her first album, ‘’The Many Faces of Miriam Makeba’, for the RCA-Victor label. Miriam teamed with famed American recording artist Harry Belafonte to produce several albums. One of the hits recorded by Miriam and Harry was “Khawuleza”. My personal favorite is the upbeat “Bamotsweri”. Miriam unintentionally started several fashion trends in America and Europe. Bongi, who came to the United States before her mother’s arrival, had her own singing career and recorded several albums.
Miriam marched at a rally alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. By 1964 she was married to composer, cornetist and singer Hugh Masakela. They divorced in 1966. She was the first female African recording artist to win a ‘Grammy”, sharing it with Belafonte in 1966 for their album, “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba”. Now living in exile and forbidden to return to South Africa, Miriam married civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968. His own controversial activities in the American Black Panther Party caused most of Miriam’s scheduled performances to be cancelled. They moved to Guinea, where she continued her career. She did not return to the United States until 1987.
Miriam continued to perform and to compose throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Miriam served as a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations in 1999. She did not totally forget her acting career. Some of her other films include Amok! (1983) and Sarafina! (1992, with Whoopi Goldberg). “Mama Africa” did return to South Africa and passed away in November of 2008 while performing at a concert in Italy. Miriam in later years felt some regret that her best known songs were not serious anti-apartheid songs but lightweight fare such as “Pata Pata”, a song about a popular Johannesburg dance of the 1950s, and the Tanzanian song “Malaika”, about a beautiful girl. But her voice extended far beyond her songs. Her advice to all of us was “Be careful, think about the effect of what you say. Your words should be constructive, bring people together, not pull them apart.”