Miriam Makeba - Biography

Miriam Makeba was a South African singer and civil rights activist, often lovingly referred to as "Mama Africa."  Like her friend and sometime collaborator Harry Belafonte, she was both pop and "exotic" and thus helped garner interest amongst non-African audiences in African music.


Zensi Miriam Makeba was born 4 March 1932 in Prospect Township, Johannesburg, South Africa. Her mother was a Swazi sangoma and her father, who died when she was six, was Xhosa. The year she was born, she spent six months imprisoned with her mother. She later attended school at the Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria, were she sang with a touring school group. She went professional in 1953, when she joined The Manhattan Brothers and recorded "Lakutshona Llange." In 1958, she formed an all-female group, The Skylarks, whose music drew from both South African music and jazz. In 1959, she joined cast of King Kong, alongside future husband Hugh Masekela and members of The Manhattan Brothers. That same year she appeared in Lionel Rogosin's anti-apartheid documentary, Come Back, Africa. She attended its première at the Venice Film Festival and afterward embarked on an 18 month tour with Alf Herbert's African Jazz and Variety tour. Whilst in London, she met Harry Belafonte, who became a close friend and invited her to join him as a guest at his Carnegie Hall appearances. Late in the year she performed solo for four weeks at the Village Vanguard in New York.


When Makeba attempted to return to South Africa for her mother's funeral in 1960, she discovered that her passport had been revoked. That year she released her first album at RCA, Miriam Makeba (1960 RCA). On it she was joined by The Belafonte Folk Singers, The Chad Mitchell Trio and Charles Coleman, among others. For her follow-up, RCA let her go to Kapp Records, who released The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba (1960 Kapp). All the while, Makeba continued to be a thorn in the side of the apartheid government of South Africa. Although they barred her from the country, after testifying against apartheid in the UN, she was granted honorary citizenship of ten more progressive states. For The World of Miriam Makeba (1963 RCA) Makeba was back at RCA, with pop gloss courtesy Brill Building producers Hugo & Luigi. It provided her with her first, measurable success. Makeba (1964 RCA) and Makeba Sings (1965 RCA) were followed by a collaboration with Harry Belafonte, An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965 RCA), an album which featured songs in various African languages. In an about face, The Magic of Makeba (1965 RCA) mostly abandoned the Africanisms for the mainstream in a move which backfired, disappointing old fans whilst failing to attract new ones.


Shortly after the disappointment of The Magic of Makeba, she left RCA for a short stay at Mercury Records. That year Mercury also released The Magnificent Miriam Makeba (1966 Mercury) and All About Miriam (1966 Mercury). The recording Live at Berns Salonger, Stockholm, Sweden, 1966 (2003 Gallo) was released many years later. In 1967, Makeba moved to Reprise. That year, a cover of Dorothy Masuka's "Pata Pata" was a big hit in the US and became her signature song. The label released two recordings that year; a live recording, Miriam Makeba in Concert! (1967 Reprise), and the album, Pata Pata (1967 Reprise). In 1968 she released two more, Makeba! (1968 Reprise) and another live set,  Live in Tokyo (1968 Reprise) However, after she married Trinidadian civil rights activist and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael that year, tours were cancelled and the couple moved to Guinea, where they became close with President Ahmed Sékou Touré and his wife. Reprise seemed to try toning down the controversy by pushing Makeba into a more Americanized, pop-soul setting with the release of Keep Me in Mind (1970 Reprise). It proved to be her last release with them.


For the remainder of the decade, Makeba released albums through a variety of labels. First she returned with Live In Conakry-Appel a L'Afrique (1971 Editions Syliphone Conakry). In 1973, her relationship with Carmichael ended. In 1974, she was one of the performers at the Rumble in the Jungle match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaïre. That year she released A Promise (1974 RCA). Her next album was a collaboration with Joe Sample, Stix Hooper, Arthur Adams, and David T. Walker of the Crusaders. It was released as Miriam Makeba & Bongi (1975 Sonodisc). Live in Paris (1977), Country Girl (1978 Sonodisc) and Comme Une Symphonie d'Amour (1979) followed.


Makeba was musically much less active in the 1980s. After the 1985 death of her only daughter, Bongi Makeba, she moved to Brussels. However, as an activist, she was as busy as ever. In 1986, she served on behalf of Guinea as a delegate to the UN, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize. The following year, she joined Ladysmith Black Mambazo for Paul Simon's Graceland tour. The year after, she published her autobiography, Miriam-My Story. In 1987, she appeared in Paul Simon's Graceland tour.  Makeba joined Paul Simon and South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo during their worldwide Graceland tour in 1987 and 1988. Shortly thereafter she published her autobiography Makeba: My Story. She also released the restrained set of traditional Xhosa songs, Sangoma (1988 Warner Bros.), her first album in nearly a decade. She returned with her second and final album of the decade, Welela (1989 Gallo).


In 1990, Makeba joined Odetta and Nina Simone on the One Nation tour. In April, 1991, at the request of Nelson Mandela, Makeba performed her first concert in South Africa in thirty years. Seven months later, she appeared on The Cosby Show episode "Olivia Comes out of the Closet."  Her first recoding in the decade was Eyes on Tomorrow (1991 Gallo). In 1992, she returned to acting, appearing as the titular character's mother in Sarafina! Another album followed, Sing me a Song (1993 Sonodisc). In 1994, she reunited with her ex, Hugh Masekela, for the Tour of Hope. That year she released Comeback (1994 Sonodisc). The same year her label release Le Monde de Miriam Makeba (1994 Sonodisc), Live au Palais du Peuple De Conakry (1994 Sonodisc), Pata Pata, Vol. 1 (1994 Sonodisc) and Miriam Makeba With the Belafonte Singers (1994 Sonodisc). The following year she both formed a charity to aid South African women and performed at Nevi Hall for a global broadcast of Christmas at the Vatican.


In 1997 she also performed at Madison Square Garden for a tribute to Harry Belafonte. On October 16th, 1999, Makeba was appointed Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. She returned to recording with Homeland (2000 Putamayo). She was also awarded the Gold Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Berlin, "or "outstanding services to peace and international understanding." She appeared in the apartheid documentary, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002). The same year, she shared the Polar Music Prize with Sofia Gubaidulina. 2004's Reflecting (Gallo) was followed by a 2005 farewell tour, brought on in part by worsening, severe arthritis. Her swan song was Makeba Forever (2006 Gallo). On November 9th, 2008, returned to the stage to support Roberto Saviano, at Castel Volturno, in Italy. After singing "Pata Pata," she suffered a heart attack and died aged 76.


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