Monday, November 10, 2008

mourning Mama Afrika: Miriam Makeba dead at 76

I no longer remember how to dance the Pata Pata; in fact, I am not sure I ever learned. I have strong memories of the song, however. My mother, a fan of African drumming and dance, almost certainly had the album and played it often, but it might have been a single of Pata Pata that my sister used to rehearse an elementary school routine that permanently carved the tune (whose words I still don’t really know) into my brain.

Hearing Pata Pata always takes me back—way back.

The woman who gave voice to this musical madeleine, Miriam Makeba, passed away this morning, apparently of a heart attack after giving a benefit concert in Italy. She was 76.

That Makeba used some of her final breaths to help another—in this case, investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, whose life has been threatened by the Camorra—is as fitting as it is predictable. Barred from her native South Africa after participating in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa in 1959, Makeba used her music and the notoriety that came with it to keep her people and their oppression in the spotlight: “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realizing.”

Makeba, who earned the nickname “Mama Afrika” (or “Africa”—I’ve seen it both ways), testified against apartheid at the United Nations as a private citizen on multiple occasions. And, after her marriage to civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) caused US bookings to dry up and the couple moved to Guinea, Makeba would eventually return to the UN as that country’s delegate.

Makeba’s marriage to Carmichael ended in divorce, as did three other marriages, one of which was to South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. She also survived an abusive first marriage, cervical cancer, and the deaths of her only daughter and grandson. Throughout all of this, Mama Afrika kept singing out and speaking out.

Makeba performed for President John F. Kennedy at his famous 1962 birthday concert at Madison Square Garden. She won a Grammy in 1966 for an album she recorded with Harry Belafonte.

My mama’s also got a great Harry Belafonte story, but that’s her memory—you’ll have to wait till she gets her own blog.

(cross-posted on The Seminal)

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