The return of Miriam Makeba

"Mama Africa" is back in the USA with a new CD, a summer tour and a lot to say.

Published May 15, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

South African singing legend Miriam Makeba first came to the U.S. in 1959 for a gig at the Village Vanguard, then New York's hippest jazz spot. Soon she was the toast of the town, attracting Miles Davis, Sidney Poitier and even Elizabeth Taylor and Bing Crosby to her shows.

In 1960, as her mother lay dying, Makeba applied for a visa to return home for a visit, and was denied -- as she would be until the end of apartheid. In its clumsy attempt to marginalize the indefatigable singer, the white South African government inadvertently granted Makeba a three-decade run as black South Africa's de facto ambassador to the Western world, where she acquired the appellation "Mama Africa."

Under the tutelage of Harry Belafonte, Makeba pleaded the case of her people to audiences across America during the height of this nation's civil rights struggle. In 1962, she performed at President Kennedy's famous birthday party in Madison Square Garden (also on the bill that night: Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday"). By 1967, she had a top-selling song on the Billboard singles charts; today that infectious dance tune, "Pata Pata," has found new life in commercials, and has been re-recorded for her new CD.

In 1968, after two previous marriages (one to trumpet legend Hugh Masekela), Makeba married controversial black activist Stokely Carmichael and lost her spot as toast of the town. She was merely toast. Her gigs were canceled and her career in the United States tanked until the strife in South Africa captured the American imagination during the 1980s. By then, her marriage to Carmichael, who died in 1998 of prostate cancer, was over, and she had lost her only child, her daughter Bongi, to complications of the daughter's delivery of a stillborn baby.

After 30 years in exile, Makeba returned to South Africa at the close of 1990, and she makes her home there today. Last month, Putamayo World Music released "Homeland," her first new recording in six years. It's a mix of strong, captivating African-language pieces, and a few English-language songs in the American pop vein.

At 68, Makeba's voice has grown even richer and more commanding -- qualities tempered by a crackliness that has come with age. This is particularly apparent on the remake of "Pata Pata," a duet with her sweet-voiced granddaughter, Zenzi Lee. (Makeba's grandson, Nelson Lee, also appears on "Homeland.") In the spoken bits of the song, Makeba exudes a sort of bemused world-weariness, an attitude that carries into our conversation when I ask her about her decision to re-record the song.

"I didn't decide that," she insists. It was the idea of her producer, Cedric Samson, she says.

"I said, 'No, man -- 'Pata Pata' since 1956!'" (Makeba first recorded the song in South Africa 11 years before it made the charts in the U.S.)

Samson convinced her to do it "just for fun," she explains, so they recorded it live in the studio in a couple of takes. The beat has been slowed down to hip-hop standards, the drums are synthesized and the background vocals have acquired a bluesy bend.

Makeba has always rejected the label of political singer or political activist, countering the claim with the assertion that she merely conveys the truth. "Everybody now admits that apartheid was wrong, and all I did was tell the people who wanted to know where I come from how we lived in South Africa. I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I can't do anything about that."

"And your marriage to Carmichael was not, as many claimed, a political statement?"

"How can anybody say that? In this country, for instance, there are people, couples [where] one is Republican and one is Democrat. But no one looks at that as anything. I never seconded any of Stokely's statements. I mean, he went out there and made his own statements, and he believed in what he believed in. And I can say he died believing in that. He never changed."

The pain of what happened to her career in the wake of that marriage is still apparently raw; she still seems shocked that her then-husband's advocacy of taking up arms against the white man should have had any bearing on her own fortunes, especially since she never commented on U.S. domestic politics. And she is right; it was unjust. But her surprise at the image-conscious music industry's response to her marriage seems startlingly naive, given the convulsions over race experienced throughout American society during the 1960s, not to mention the subordinate role expected of wives to husbands at that time.

"Did you get to see Carmichael before he died?" I ask.

"He came to South Africa and I saw him there," she says, matter-of-factly. "He came to the unveiling of Steve Biko's tombstone ... And he came to my home [in Johannesburg], but I wasn't there. And so I went to see him where he was staying because I knew he had been reported ill. I just wanted to go and see him. And I remember that he was leaving to go to the Cape where the unveiling was going to take place. Actually I found him packing ... He came down and said hello."

Letta M'boulu, a singer whose career Makeba promoted in the 1960s, was there with her husband, she says. Whatever emotion she felt at the meeting is not for me to know. It is presented as little more than pleasantries exchanged between acquaintances.

"Then I was invited to come here to Washington when he was honored by all the black important people just before he went to Guinea to die," she says. "But I couldn't come. I had been engaged to go perform, and I couldn't get out of it."

Big things happen in Makeba's life while she is on the road, and she is rarely able to cancel a gig, she says, since bad management at the height of her career left her dependent on performances for her income. She receives little money from her recordings, and none, she contends, from the hits she made in the 1960s.

Of all the intrigue and legend of Makeba's life, perhaps the most consistent theme of her work is the idea of home. After 30 years away, three decades lived as a citizen of the world, how comfortable does she find the South Africa of today? The title of a cut on the advance copy of the "Homeland" CD grabs my attention: "Unhome." It turns out to be a misprint. When I raise it with Makeba, she corrects me: "UM-home," she says.

The song is a searing lament in Xhosa, Makeba's native tongue. The words seem secondary to the cry of desolation conveyed by the singer. I ask her what the lyric means.

It is, she explains, the story of a young woman, newly married in the traditional manner. When it is time for her to go to live with her husband's family, she is escorted to his home, as is customary, by a young woman from her village, who her new husband falls for.

There's a knock at the door. I instinctively get up to answer it; it's the room service waiter with a silver coffee service, which he places on the cocktail table before us, as I move a blood-pressure monitor out of the way. Makeba is not one who has made it this long by dint of good health. She's had bouts with cancer and, early in her career, survived a gruesome car accident in South Africa. After happening upon the wreck, a white policeman had left Makeba and members of the act, Township Jazz, with which she was performing at the time on the road to die. Three of her fellow troupers did.

Makeba returns to her narrative about the bride in her song.

"Now she's thinking of the dowry the parents had paid, you know, there are a lot of difficulties," she explains. "You can't go back home. You'll be an embarrassment, so what do you do? So she goes outside and sits on a rock and she says, 'I have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. This feeling, I cannot explain. And I cannot go back home.'"

There's an obvious resonance there for Makeba, but not only in the idea of exile. Her first marriage, the one of which her daughter was born, was to a black South African policeman, whom Makeba caught in flagrante with her sister.

The song as it appears on the CD is Makeba's own interpretation of it, she says, "but it's an old song I learned from my grandmother. She used to sing this and explain it. I used to wonder if she didn't go through this because she sang it very well, with so much feeling. And she would look that sad."

But back to that question of home, I say. Is she really at home in today's South Africa?

"Well, it's still the same place, where I left my umbilical cord," she contends. "In the mind, in the heart, I was always home. I always imagined, really, going back home. Because when I left home [in 1959] I had no intentions of not going back."

She cites "Masakhane," the new CD's opening cut, a rousing number, beautifully composed by Zamo Mbutho, one of the musicians in her band. Written with a Xhosa lyric, the title is a word coined by activists to describe an idealized spirit of nation-building. "This young man knows," she says of Mbutho. "He's with me all the time because we work together, we travel. And he knows how happy I am to be back home. There's a part where it says [she sings]: 'Sengi buyele mna singibuyile khaya Kwasi kwamnand, ekhaya we vumanibo He mn.' It means: I'm back! I am back home! And it's so wonderful; it is so great to be back home. So let's all get up!"

"A lot of things have changed" in South Africa, she continues. "We're now able to go to places we were never allowed to go to. Look at black and white children, all those races, going to the same schools, and so on. And here are some beautiful things that have happened. But it's just still now the poverty and the homelessness that we have to work hard on now. So the struggle goes on."

"How do you keep the struggle your own," I ask, "without succumbing to the demands of Western powers whose development money holds the key to developing resources?"

"But the resources, the natural resources," she says, "they all belong to that very troubled continent of Africa. And I believe that it becomes a troubled continent because there are those who must always cause confusion so that we do not keep these natural resources. For instance, we're always fighting amongst each other. Who gives us the arms? And then we become indebted to wherever we are buying them from -- with what? The very resources we need to keep there."

It's time, she says, for the people of Africa to "stop fighting and just be soldiers, beautiful soldiers, who should fight, not against each other or other nations, but fight disease, fight hunger, fight all the ills of the world and bring our people up to a much better way of living. I just wish that that should happen, and it must happen someday. Otherwise, I will look up to the Superior Being and say, 'What is it that we have done?' I mean, it cannot go on forever; it should not go on forever."

She notes the West's late response to the March floods in Mozambique. "Flood, flood, flood all over; I was never so sad," she says. "And I cried when I saw that woman have a baby on a tree. I mean, really. And it was so strange that there is little South Africa can do; we were hit in [northern South Africa] by the flood. And our country was struggling there and then also had to go and help in Mozambique with the limited means we have. And the world did not come through until 10, 12 days later. That was the strangest thing, too, and it hurt. It hurt those of us who do love our troubled continent. And you ask yourself the question, why?"

Of the prospect for racial harmony in her own country, Makeba remains cautiously optimistic, though she concedes that legal change alone will not do the trick.

"When you have the laws that people can go to and say, 'You can't do this to me because the law says you cannot do it,' -- that was the difference between America and South Africa, even when I first came here." Racism, she explains, "was not institutionalized anymore" -- at least not in the northern states -- "but, you know, people practiced it. Which goes to show you, you can make all the laws you want, but you cannot change people's ways. If you must change them, you have to understand that it will take a long time.

"We have a chance maybe now in that all those little ones are going to the same schools together, and maybe they will grow up not feeling [bad toward] each other, not suspecting one another, because they're growing up together. . . And so we have a chance, maybe 50 years from now, to be much better. I don't think it will be gone. Some people are just die-hards; they will not change, and there are quite a few of those on both sides."

"Do you think you might write another book?" I ask.

"I don't know," she says with a sigh.

"Your last one came out in 1988, and a lot of things have happened to you since then."

"It was not well distributed," she says of her autobiography, "Makeba: My Story." "Perhaps it was the wrong time, because there were still a lot of people who thought I was a terrorist or I am this, I am that."

"Do you still get that?"

"Well, there are so many things that have happened to me that make me feel that some people will never forgive."

"Forgive what?"

"I don't know, because I've never killed anybody. I've never said anything nasty about anybody, except my truth, which is things I've experienced in my country, or wherever ... I feel sorry for people who cannot forgive, because there are people who think I did something," she asserts. "But even if I did something, has it not been so long ago that they can't say, 'Oh yeah, you know, maybe she was crazy. Maybe she was this.' If they don't, it's them I feel sorry for, because I have forgiven everybody who tried to strangle me and couldn't -- I'm still here."

There's a certain irony to Makeba's circumstance. Because she was categorized as an anti-apartheid activist, with apartheid now over, she herself is starting over as a singer. I mention this, and she laughs.

"I always fall, then get up and -- " she suddenly claps her hands. "My life has been like a yo-yo. One minute I'm dining with presidents and emperors; the next I'm hitchhiking. I've accepted it. I say, 'Hey, maybe that's the way it was written, and it has to be.' And that maybe there's a reason why I'm still here."

"I hope nobody puts me on a shelf again," she says plaintively. "I hope all those people can find it in the goodness of their hearts to just please leave me alone."

"Who?" I ask. "Who do you mean?"

"All the ones who've been suppressing and whatever, you know?"

I don't. "Who don't give the music the airplay?"

"Who don't forget."

"Oh, those people," I reply, cluelessly. "Well, who do you mean when you say this?"

"They know themselves," she says, stubbornly. "When they read this, they'll know who they are."

We've moved into serious resentment territory. "There is a sad thing, too ...," she continues. "When I left [South Africa] and went to Europe ... the manager I had then had me sign so many things. And you would be surprised -- I have never had one cent from 'Pata Pata.' I should be a millionaire," she says.

"But, you see, that is the sad story of Makeba. People keep beating me on the head with a hammer." Her voice tamps down to a whisper. "And I keep getting up."

By Adele M. Stan

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Adele M. Stan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Elizabeth Taylor Paul Shirley