South Africa mourns the loss of an icon

Musical legend Miriam Makeba dies at 76.

Miriam Makeba 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Miriam Makeba 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Miriam Makeba, the South African singer who wooed the world with her sultry voice but was banned from her own country for more than 30 years under apartheid, died after a concert in Italy. She was 76. 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 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," Mandela said in a statement. He said it was "fitting" that her last moments were spent on stage. The Pineta Grande clinic in Castel Volturno, near the southern city of Naples, said Makeba died early Monday of a heart attack. Town Mayor Francesco Nuzzo said Makeba collapsed late Sunday at the end of a concert against organized crime, which has been blamed for the local massacre in September of six immigrants from Ghana. The death of "Mama Africa," as she was known, plunged South Africa into shock and mourning. "One of the greatest songstresses of our time has ceased to sing," Foreign Affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said in a statement. "Throughout her life, Mama Makeba communicated a positive message to the world about the struggle of the people of South Africa and the certainty of victory over the dark forces of apartheid and colonialism through the art of song." Makeba wrote in her 1987 memoirs that friends and relatives who first encouraged her to perform compared her voice to that of a nightingale. With her distinctive style combining jazz with folk with South African township rhythms, she was often called "The Empress of African Song." The first African woman to win a Grammy award, Makeba started singing in Sophiatown, a cosmopolitan neighborhood of Johannesburg that was a cultural hotspot in the 1950s before its black residents were forcibly removed by the apartheid government. She then teamed up with South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela - later her first husband - and her rise to international prominence started when she starred in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa in 1959. When she tried to fly home for her mother's funeral the following year, she discovered her passport had been revoked. It was 30 years before she was allowed to return. In 1963, Makeba appeared before the UN Special Committee on Apartheid to call for an international boycott of South Africa. The South African government responded by banning her records, including hits like "Pata Pata," "The Click Song" ("Qongqothwane" in Xhosa), and "Malaika." Makeba received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording in 1966, together with Belafonte, for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. The album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid. Thanks to her close relationship with Belafonte, she received star status in the United States and performed for president Kennedy at his birthday party in 1962. But she fell briefly out of favor when she married black power activist Stokely Carmichael and moved to Guinea in the late 1960s. Besides working with Simone and Gillespie, she also appeared with Paul Simon at his "Graceland" concert in Zimbabwe in 1987. After three decades abroad, Makeba was invited back to South Africa by Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon, shortly after his release from prison in 1990 as white racist rule crumbled. "It was like a revival," she said about going home. "My music having been banned for so long, that people still felt the same way about me was too much for me. I just went home and I cried." She insisted that her songs were not deliberately political. "I'm not a political singer," she insisted in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper earlier this year. "I don't know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us - especially the things that hurt us." Makeba announced her retirement three years ago, but despite a series of farewell concerts she never stopped performing. When she turned 75 last year, she said she would sing for as long as possible. Makeba is survived by her grandchildren, Nelson Lumumba Lee and Zenzi Monique Lee, and her great-grandchildren Lindelani, Ayanda and Kwame. Acclaimed South African filmmaker Anant Singh, who worked with Makeba on the hit anti-apartheid film Sarafina, was in awe of the singer. "We acknowledge the huge role she played in bringing global awareness to African music during the time she lived abroad and she will always be remembered as the mother of African music," he told the South African Press Association. Tributes poured in on morning radio talk shows, with many callers in tears as they recalled her humor and her unrelenting spirit. "She had been part of my life for a long time. It is a great loss," singer P.J. Powers told radio station 702. "She had a huge soul."