Miriam Makeba life and biography

Miriam Makeba picture, image, poster

Miriam Makeba biography

Date of birth : 1932-03-04
Date of death : 2008-11-10
Birthplace : Prospect, Johannesburg, South Africa
Nationality : African
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-12-12
Credited as : Singer, nicknamed Mama Africa, civil rights activist

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Miriam Makeba, nicknamed Mama Africa, was a Grammy Award winning South African singer and civil rights activist.

Miriam Makeba is chief among those who have proclaimed the experiences of black South Africans. Throughout a career spanning more than three decades, she has established herself as a powerful voice in the fight against apartheid--the South African practice of institutional political, economic, and social oppression along racial lines. Often referred to as "Mother Africa" and "The Empress of African Song," Makeba is credited with bringing the rhythmic and spiritual sounds of Africa to the West. Her music is a soulful mix of jazz, blues, and traditional African folk songs shaded with potent political overtones. Using music as a primary forum for her social concerns, the singer has become a lasting symbol in the fight for racial equality and has come to represent the pain of all South Africans living in exile.

Makeba's first encounter with the severity of government rule in her native land came when she was just two and a half weeks old: Following her mother's arrest for the illegal sale of home-brewed beer, the infant served a six-month jail term with her. Makeba's formative years were equally difficult; as a teenager she performed backbreaking domestic work for white families and endured physical abuse from her first husband. She found solace and a sense of community in music and religion. Singing first in a choir, Makeba soon showcased her talents with local bands, achieving success on the regional club circuit.

Makeba captured international attention with her role in the film Come Back, Africa, a controversial anti-apartheid statement released in 1959. Following the film's debut at the Venice Film Festival, Makeba traveled to London, where she met respected American entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte. Impressed by her unique and profound renderings of African folk songs, he served as her mentor and promoter in the United States, arranging performances for her in New York City clubs and a guest spot on The Steve Allen Show. This exposure brought Makeba worldwide acclaim and launched a cross-cultural music career of uncommon proportions.

The 1960s proved an especially tumultuous decade for Makeba. Her outspoken opposition to the repressive political climate in South Africa set the stage for harsh government retaliation. Makeba's call for an end to apartheid became increasingly powerful, and her recordings were subsequently banned in South Africa. More than three decades of exile began for the singer in 1960, when, seeking to return to her native land for her mother's funeral, her passport was invalidated by the South African government. Makeba also endured turmoil in her personal life. Between 1959 and 1966 she suffered two failed marriages, one to singer Sonny Pilay and another to trumpeter Hugh Masekela. In the early 1960s she faced a serious threat to her health, battling cervical cancer through radical surgery.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Makeba's career, however, came with her 1968 marriage to American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. A self-avowed revolutionary, Carmichael took a militant "Black Power" stance that was often perceived as divisive and threatening to the fabric of American society. Having long used song as a vehicle to raise social and political awareness, Makeba was stunned by the devastating effect of her marriage on her career; her relationship with Carmichael effectively eliminated her arena for social expression in the West. In her autobiography Makeba: My Story, she recalled her suddenly unwelcome status in the United States: "My concerts are being canceled left and right. I learn that people are afraid that my shows will finance radical activities. I can only shake my head. What does Stokely have to do with my singing?" When her record label, Reprise, refused to honor her contract in the States, Makeba moved with Carmichael to Guinea, West Africa.

Although Makeba's marriage to Carmichael ended in 1978, she remained in Guinea for several years. She continued performing in Europe and parts of Africa, promoting freedom, unity, and social change. During the singer's time in Guinea, though, heartbreaking misfortune again touched her life. Her youngest grandson became fatally ill, and her only daughter, Bongi, died after delivering a stillborn child. Yet, through all of her trials, Makeba has derived consolation from her music and her undying faith in God.

In the spring of 1987 Makeba joined American folk-rock legend Paul Simon's phenomenal Graceland tour in the newly independent black nation of Zimbabwe. An unprecedented display of multicultural music and racial unity, the concert focused attention on the injustice of imperial racist policies in South Africa and displayed the talents of generations of South African musicians. Following the success and exposure afforded her by the Graceland tour, Makeba recorded her first American release in two decades, a tribal collection titled Sangoma, which means diviner-healer. Featuring African chants that the singer learned in her youth from her mother, the solo album cast a new light on the soulful, spiritual sounds of her native land. Makeba's follow-up album--the 1989 Polydor debut Welela-- blended traditional songs with popular compositions.

In a Chicago Tribune interview, Makeba summarized her thoughts on life in exile: "I have love, but I also have suffering. I am a South African. I left part of me there. I belong there." In June of 1990 Makeba was finally allowed to go home; she visited Johannesburg for the first time in 31 years. The following year Polydor released Eyes on Tomorrow, an upbeat protest album recorded in a Johannesburg studio. Featuring pioneering jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, rhythm and blues singer Nina Simone, and Hugh Masekela, Eyes on Tomorrow is generally considered a more commercial mix of pop, blues, and jazz than Makeba's previous efforts.

A spokesperson for civil rights throughout the world, Makeba continues to stand as the embodiment of the black South African experience. As New York Times contributor Robert Farris Thompson put it: "She is a symbol of the emergence of Afro-Atlantic art and a voice for her people. Her life in multiple cultural and political settings--and her rich musical career, drawing on traditional and contemporary sources--have resonance for us all."

In 2001 she was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold by the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin, "for outstanding services to peace and international understanding". She shared the Polar Music Prize with Sofia Gubaidulina.The prize is regarded as Sweden's foremost musical honour. They received their Prize from Carl XVI Gustaf King of Sweden during a nationally-televised ceremony at Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, on 27 May 2002.

She also took part in the 2002 documentary Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony where she and others recalled the struggles of black South Africans against the injustices of apartheid through the use of music. In 2004, Makeba was voted 38th in the Top 100 Great South Africans. Makeba started a worldwide farewell tour in 2005, holding concerts in all of those countries that she had visited during her working life.

On 9 November 2008, she became ill while taking part in a concert organized to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organisation local to the Region of Campania. The concert was being held in Castel Volturno, near Caserta, Italy. Makeba suffered a heart attack after singing her hit song "Pata Pata", and was taken to the "Pineta Grande" clinic where doctors were unable to revive her.

Studio albums:
-The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba (1960)
-Miriam Makeba (1960)
-The World of Miriam Makeba (1963)
-The Voice of Africa (1964)
-Makeba Sings! (1965)
-An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965)
-The Magic of Makeba (1965)
-The Magnificent Miriam Makeba (1966)
-All About Miriam (1966)
-Pata Pata (1967)
-Makeba! (1968)
-Keep Me in Mind (1970)
-A Promise (1974)
-Miriam Makeba & Bongi (1975)
-Country Girl (1978)
-Comme une symphonie d'amour (1979)
-Sangoma (1988)
-Welela (1989)
-Eyes on Tomorrow (1991)
-Sing Me a Song (1993)
-Homeland (2000)
-Reflecting (2004)
-Makeba Forever (2006)

Live albums:
-Miriam Makeba in Concert!
-Live in Tokyo (1968) (LP)
-Live in Conakry: Appel a l'Afrique (1974)
-Enregistrement public au Theatre des Champs-Elysées (1977)
-Live at Berns Salonger, Stockholm, Sweden, 1966 (2003) (CD)

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