Miriam Makeba

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Miriam Makeba
Miriam makeba 01.jpg
Makeba during a performance
Background information
Birth name Zenzile Miriam Makeba[1]
Also known as Mama Africa
Born (1932-03-04)4 March 1932
Prospect Township, Johannesburg, Union of South Africa
Died 9 November 2008(2008-11-09) (aged 76)
Castel Volturno, Italy
Genres Marabi, World music, folk, pop rock, jazz, Afro-soul
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter, actress
Years active 1954–2008
Labels Manteca, RCA, Mercury Records, Kapp Records, Collectables, Suave Music, Warner Bros., PolyGram, Drg, Stern's Africa, Kaz, Sonodisc
Website Official website

Zenzile Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 – 9 November 2008), nicknamed Mama Africa, was a South African singer, actor, UN goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist.

In the 1960s, she was the first artist from Africa to popularize African music around the world. She is best known for the song "Pata Pata", first recorded in 1957 and released in the U.S. in 1967. She recorded and toured with many popular artists, such as Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, and her former husband Hugh Masekela.

Makeba campaigned against the South African system of apartheid, and is known for popularizing several anti-apartheid songs.[2] The South African government responded by revoking her passport in 1960 and her citizenship and right of return in 1963. As the apartheid system crumbled she returned home for the first time in 1990.

Makeba died of a heart attack on 9 November 2008 after performing in a concert in Italy organised to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organisation local to the region of Campania.

Early years[edit]

Family and education[edit]

Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932. Her mother Christina Makeba was a Swazi traditional South African healer, a sangoma, who also worked as a housemaid. Her father, Caswell Makeba, who died when she was six years old, was a Xhosa teacher.[3][4] Her name "Zenzile" derived from the Xhosa word "Uzenzile", which translates to "you have no one to blame but yourself"; "Zenzile" was a traditional name supposed to provide support through challenging circumstances.[3]

When she was eighteen days old, her mother was arrested for selling umqombothi, an African homemade beer brewed from malt and cornmeal. Her mother was sentenced to a six-month prison term, so Miriam spent her first six months of life in jail.[5][6] As a child, she sang in the choir of the Kilnerton Training Institute in Pretoria, a methodist primary school that she attended for eight years.[7] Her singing was remarked upon while she was at school.[3]

The family moved to Transvaal when Makeba was a child. After her father's death, she was forced to find employment, and did domestic work for a while,[3] and also worked as a nanny. She described herself as a shy individual at the time.[8]

In 1949 Makeba married James Kubay, with whom she had her only child, Bongi Makeba, born in 1950. Makeba was then diagnosed with breast cancer, and her husband, who was said to have beaten her, left her shortly afterwards, after a two-year marriage.[3][4][8] Her cancer was successfully treated by her mother.[3]

Early career[edit]

Makeba began her professional musical career with the Cuban Brothers, and joined the South African jazz group the Manhattan Brothers soon afterward, at the age of 21.[3] She also joined the all-woman group, The Skylarks (previously known as The Sunbeams), singing a blend of jazz and traditional melodies of South Africa.[5] Makeba sand with the Skylarks when the Manhattan Brothers were travelling abroad, though she would eventually travel with them as well.[3] While with the Skylarks Makeba sang alongside Zimbabwean musician Dorothy Matsuka. Several of the group's pieces became popular.[3]

As early as 1956, she released the single "Pata Pata", which was played on all the radio stations and made her name known throughout South Africa.[9]

In 1959, Makeba sang the lead female role in the Broadway-inspired South African musical King Kong;[7] among those in the cast was musician Hugh Masekela.[10] The musical was performed to raciallly integrated audiences, raising her profile among white South Africans.[3] Also in 1959 she had a short guest appearance in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid documentary produced and directed by American independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. The short cameo made an enormous impression on the viewers, and Rogosin managed to organise a visa for her to attend the premiere of the film at the twenty-fourth Venice Film Festival in Italy, where the film won the prestigious Critics' Award.[11][12] The appearance gave Makeba international recognition, and led to her travelling to London and New York to perform.[3] While in London she had met Harry Belafonte, who became her mentor, helping her with her first solo recordings.[13] These included "Pata Pata", which would be released many years later, and a cover of The Click Song first performed with The Skylarks.[3] While in England, she also had a brief marriage to Sonny Pillay, a South African ballad singer of Indian descent.[4] They divorced within a few months, and Makeba then went to New York; she made her U.S. debut on 1 November 1959 on The Steve Allen Show,[3][4][10] and her New York debut at the Village Vanguard, after which her reputation grew rapidly.[14]


I always wanted to leave home. I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you've ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That's when it hurts.

—Miriam Makeba[15]

United States[edit]

Soon after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when Makeba was still outside South Africa, she learned that her mother had died. When she tried to return to South Africa for the funeral, she found that her South African passport had been cancelled.[3][16]

Her musical career in the U.S. continued to flourish. She released many of her most famous hits in the United States, including "The Click Song" ("Qongqothwane" in Xhosa) and "Malaika". Time called her the "most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years," and Newsweek compared her voice to "the smoky tones and delicate phrasing" of Ella Fitzgerald and the "intimate warmth" of Frank Sinatra.[5] She signed with the recording label RCA Victor, and released Miriam Makeba, her first studio album, in 1960.[16] In 1962, Makeba and Belafonte sang at the birthday party for U.S. President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, but Makeba did not go to the aftershow party because she was ill. Kennedy, however, insisted on meeting her, so Belafonte sent a car to pick her up.[17] In 1963, Makeba released her second studio album for RCA, The World of Miriam Makeba. An early example of world music, the album peaked at number eighty-six on the Billboard 200.[16][18] Commentators have stated that Makeba's music had a cross-racial appeal in the US; white Americans were attracted to her image as an "exotic" African performer, while black Americans related their own experiences of racial segregation to Makeba's struggle against apartheid.[19] Makeba found company among other African exiles and emigres in New York, including Hugh Masekela, to whom she was married from 1963 to 1968.[14] She also came to know a number of American celebrities, including actors Marlon Brando and Lauren Bacall and musicians Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles.[14]

She visited Kenya in 1962, and later that year she testified about the effects of apartheid before a United Nations special committee. As a result, her South African citizenship and her right to return to the country were revoked.[7] Makeba thus became a stateless individual, but she was soon issued international passports by Guinea, Belgium and Ghana.[16] In her life, she held nine passports,[5] and was granted honorary citizenship in ten countries.[17] Soon after her testimony, Hailie Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, invited her to perform at the inauguration of the Organization for African Unity: she was the only performer so invited.[3]

In 1964 she was taught the song "Malaika" by a Kenyan student while backstage at a performance in San Francisco; the song would later become a staple of her performances. Over the 1960s Makeba became more involved with political activism, including the Civil rights movement in the US, the Black consciousness movement, the Black power movement, and the movement against apartheid. While engaged in activist work she met Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the Black Panthers.[3]

In 1966, Makeba received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording together with Harry Belafonte for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.[18] The album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid, and it was one of the first American albums to present traditional Zulu, Sotho and Swahili songs in an authentic setting.[16] The album sold widely, and was largely responsible for Makeba achieving popular recognition in the US.[20] Despite the success that made her a star in the U.S., she wore no makeup and refused to curl her hair for shows, thus establishing a style that would come to be known internationally as the "Afro look".[11] In 1967, more than ten years after she wrote the song, the single "Pata Pata" was released in the United States and became a worldwide hit.


I’d already lived in exile for 10 years, and the world is free, even if some of the countries in it aren’t, so I packed my bags and left.

—Miriam Makeba[21]
Makeba in 1969

Her marriage to Trinidad-born civil rights activist and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968 caused controversy in the United States, and her record deals and tours were cancelled. As a result, the couple moved to Guinea,[7] where Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Touré.[3] Guinea would be Makeba's home for the next 15 years, and she and her husband became close with President Ahmed Sékou Touré and his wife, Andrée.[5][8] Touré wanted to create a new style of African music, and all musicians received a minimum wage if they practiced for some hours every day. Makeba would later state that "I've never seen a country that did what Sékou Touré did for artists."[17] Makeba was appointed Guinea's official delegate to the United Nations, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986. She also separated from Carmichael in 1973 (they would divorce formally in 1978[3]) and continued to perform primarily in Africa, Europe and Asia, but not in the United States, where a de facto boycott was in effect.[21] Makeba was one of the entertainers at the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaïre. She addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the second time in 1975.[5] She divorced Carmichael in 1978 and married Bageot Bah, an airline executive, in 1980.[3][4]


Her daughter Bongi died in childbirth in 1985, after which Makeba decided to move to Brussels.[5] In the following year, Hugh Masekela introduced Makeba to Paul Simon, and a few months later she embarked on the very successful Graceland Tour, which was documented on music video.[22][21][23] The tour concluded with two concerts held in Harare, Zimbabwe,[24] which were filmed in 1987 for release as Graceland: The African Concert. After touring the world with Simon, Warner Bros. Records signed Makeba and she released Sangoma ("Healer"), an a cappella album of healing chants named in honour of her mother who was a "sangoma" ("a healer").[21] Her involvement with Simon also caused controversy: Graceland had been recorded in South Africa, breaking the cultural boycott of the country, and thus Makeba's participation the in the Graceland tour was seen as also breaking the boycott.[3] Makeba herself was a strong advocate of the boycott.[3]

Shortly thereafter, her autobiography Makeba: My Story was published and subsequently translated from English into other languages including German, French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish. She took part in the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, a popular-music concert staged on 11 June 1988 at Wembley Stadium, London, and broadcast to 67 countries and an audience of 600 million.[25] Also referred to as Freedomfest, Free Nelson Mandela Concert, and Mandela Day, the event called for Mandela's release.

Return to South Africa[edit]

Makeba and Dizzy Gillespie in Calvados, France, 1991

Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Tribute increased pressure on the government of South Africa to release Mandela, and in 1990, State President of South Africa Frederik Willem de Klerk reversed the ban on the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organisations, and announced that Nelson Mandela would shortly be released from prison.[26] Mandela, who was effectively released from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990,[27] persuaded Miriam Makeba to return to South Africa. She returned home on 10 June 1990, on her French passport.[5][28]

In 1991, Makeba, with Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone and Masekela, recorded and released her studio album, Eyes on Tomorrow. It combined jazz, R&B, pop, and African music, and was a hit in Africa. Makeba and Gillespie then toured the world together to promote it.[21] In November of the same year, she made a guest appearance in the episode "Olivia Comes Out of the Closet" of The Cosby Show. In 1992, she starred in the film Sarafina!. The film's plot centers on students involved in the 1976's Soweto youth uprisings, and Makeba portrayed the title character's mother, "Angelina". The following year she released Sing Me a Song.

On 16 October 1999, Miriam Makeba was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).[29] In January 2000, her album, Homeland, produced by Cedric Samson and Michael Levinsohn for the New York City based record label Putumayo World Music, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music Album category. She worked closely with Graça Machel-Mandela, who at the time was the South African first lady, for children suffering from HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and the physically handicapped.[5]

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 2005 she announced that she would retire, but despite having osteoarthritis, continued to perform until her death.[17]

Musical style and themes[edit]

The groups with which Makeba began her career performed mbube, a style of vocal harmony which drew on American jazz, ragtime, and Anglican church hymns, as well as indigenous styles of music.[3] Johannesburg musician Dolly Rathebe was an early influence on Makeba's music.[17][3]

She stated that she did not perform political music, but music about her personal life in South Africa, which included describing the pain she felt living under apartheid.[8][17] Nonetheless, she is known for using her voice to convey the political message of opposition to apartheid.[30]

In over thirty years of performing outside South Africa, Makeba did not greatly change her repertoire.[3] The music that she performed has been described as a "unique blend of rousing township styles and jazz-influenced balladry".[17]

She was known for having a dynamic vocal range,[3] and was described as having an emotional awareness during her performances.[3] She was able to vary her voice considerably: an obituary remarked that she "could soar like an opera singer, but she could also whisper, roar, hiss, growl and shout. She could sing while making the epiglottal clicks of the Xhosa language."[8] She would also dance during her performances.[8]

Death and legacy[edit]

On 9 November 2008, she fell ill while taking part in a concert organised 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.[31][a][32] Her publicist notes that Makeba had suffered "severe arthritis" for some time.[33] She and family members were based in Northriding, Gauteng, at the time of her death.

Makeba was responsible for popularizing a number of songs protesting apartheid, including "Meadowlands" by Strike Vilakezi and "Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd" (Watch out Verwoerd) by Vuyisile Mini.[2]

Makeba was among the most visible individuals campaigning against the apartheid regime in South Africa,[8] and among the most visible people from Africa in the United States; as a result, she was often emblematic of the continent of African for people in the US.[20] Her music earned her the moniker "Mama Africa",[8] and she was variously described as the "Empress of African Song",[3] the "Queen of South African music",[34] and Africa's "first superstar".[17]

Notable songs and albums[edit]

This is a list of albums and songs, including covers, by Miriam Makeba that received significant mention in commentary about her or about the musical and political movements she participated in.


Awards and recognition[edit]

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.[citation needed] They received their Prize from Carl XVI Gustaf King of Sweden during a nationally-televised ceremony at Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, on 27 May 2002.[35]

In 2004, Makeba's second autobiography, Makeba: The Miriam Makeba Story, was published.[4] That year, she 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.[17]

Mama Africa, a musical about Miriam Makeba was produced in South Africa by University of Missouri Des Lee Endowed Professor of Theater, Niyi Coker. Originally titled Zenzi!, The musical premiered to a sold out crowd at Cape Town, South Africa on 26 May 2016. It will debut in the United States with performances scheduled in Saint Louis, Missouri and New York City from 14 September 2016 through December 2016 with the musical returning to South Africa in February 2017 for celebration of what would have been Miriam Makeba's 85th birthday.[36][37][38]

From 25 to 27 September 2009, a tribute show to Makeba entitled Hommage à Miriam Makeba and curated by Grammy Award-winning Beninoise singer-songwriter and activist Angélique Kidjo for the Festival d'Ile de France, was held at the Cirque d'hiver in Paris.[39] The same show but with the English title of Mama Africa: Celebrating Miriam Makeba was held at the Barbican in London on 21 November 2009.[40] Mama Africa, a documentary film about the life of Miriam Makeba, co-written and directed by Finnish film director Mika Kaurismäki, was released in 2011.[41] On 4 March 2013 Google honored her with a doodle on the homepage.[42]

The Pretoria campus of the Lycée Jules Verne, École Miriam Makeba, is named after her.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Francesco Longanella, medical director of the Pineta Grande Clinic, told Reuters that "[Miriam Makeba] arrived [at the Pineta Grande Clinic] at 11:15 pm [of 9 November 2008], [but that she was] already dead [...] [we] tried to revive her for three quarters of an hour." (Translated from Italian)[31]


  1. ^ "Miriam Makeba official website". 
  2. ^ a b Vershbow, Michela E. (2010). "The Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in South Africa's Anti-Apartheid Movement". Inquiries Journal. 2 (6). Retrieved 26 October 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Ewens, Graeme (11 November 2008). "Obituary: Miriam Makeba". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 March 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Allen, Lara (2011). "Makeba, Miriam Zenzi". In Akyeampong, Emmanuel K.; Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Dictionary of African Biography. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199857258. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Nkrumah 2001.
  6. ^ Schwarz-Bart 2003, p. 208.
  7. ^ a b c d Kaufman 2006, p. 333.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Miriam Makeba obituary". The Economist. 13 November 2008. 
  9. ^ Schwarz-Bart 2003, p. 213.
  10. ^ a b Bordowitz 2004, p. 246.
  11. ^ a b Schwarz-Bart 2003, p. 214.
  12. ^ "Venice Film Festival (1959)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 14 November 2010. 
  13. ^ Kaufman 2006, p. 313.
  14. ^ a b c Sizemore-Barber 2012, p. 256.
  15. ^ Bordowitz 2004, p. 247.
  16. ^ a b c d e Poet 2009, p. 1.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i Denselow, Robin (16 May 2008). "The long goodbye". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 November 2010. 
  18. ^ a b c "Miriam Makeba Charts & Awards". Allmusic. Retrieved 18 November 2010. 
  19. ^ Sizemore-Barber 2012, p. 255.
  20. ^ a b Sizemore-Barber 2012, pp. 252-253.
  21. ^ a b c d e Poet 2009, p. 2.
  22. ^ Kaufman 2006, p. 314.
  23. ^ Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books. p. 427. CN 5585. 
  24. ^ Sizemore-Barber 2012, p. 251.
  25. ^ Hollingsworth, Tony. "Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute". Retrieved 12 November 2010. 
  26. ^ "1990: Freedom for Nelson Mandela". BBC. 11 February 1990. Retrieved 10 November 2010. 
  27. ^ Ormond, Roger (12 February 1990). "Mandela free after 27 years". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 10 November 2008. 
  28. ^ "Singer Back in South Africa". The New York Times. Associated Press. 11 June 1990. Retrieved 22 November 2010. 
  29. ^ "Miriam Makeba". Food and Agriculture Organization. Retrieved 16 September 2009. 
  30. ^ Sizemore-Barber 2012, p. 253.
  31. ^ a b "Miriam Makeba muore dopo concerto a Castel Volturno" [Miriam Makeba dies after concert in Castel Volturno] (in Italian). Reuters Italia. 10 November 2008. Retrieved 14 November 2010. 
  32. ^ "Singer Miriam Makeba dies aged 76". BBC News. 10 November 2008. Retrieved 10 November 2008. 
  33. ^ Chaudhry, Serena (10 November 2008). "'Mama Africa' Miriam Makeba dies after concert". Reuters. Retrieved 12 November 2010. 
  34. ^ Sizemore-Barber 2012, p. 252.
  35. ^ "Miriam Makeba". Polar Music Prize. 27 May 2002. Retrieved 14 November 2010. 
  36. ^ "Miriam Makeba Mama Africa". University of the Western Cape. Retrieved 14 July 2016. 
  37. ^ "Mama Africa–The Musical The Life and Times of an International Legend". University of the Western Cape. Retrieved 14 July 2016. 
  38. ^ "Zenzi Benga – The Musical". mamaafricathemusical.com. Retrieved 14 July 2016. 
  39. ^ "Tous les concerts" [All Concerts] (PHP) (in French). Festival d'Ile de France. Retrieved 14 November 2010. 
  40. ^ "Mama Africa: Celebrating Miriam Makeba". Barbican. Retrieved 11 November 2010. 
  41. ^ Mama Africa documentary about Miriam Makeba (2011) at the Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  42. ^ "Miriam Makeba's birthday commemorated in Google doodle". The Guardian. 4 March 2013. Retrieved 4 March 2013. 


  • Bordowitz, Hank (2004). "Miriam Makeba". Noise of the World: Non-western Musicians in their Own Words. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull. pp. 245–260. ISBN 1-932360-60-3. OCLC 56809540. 
  • Kaufman, Alan (9 October 2006). ""Miriam Makeba" from Noise of the World / Hank Bordowitz". The Outlaw Bible of American Essays. New York: Thunder's Mouth. ISBN 1-56025-935-3. OCLC 74175340. 
  • Makeba, Miriam; Hall, James (1988) [1987]. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-453-00561-6. OCLC 16131137. 
  • Makeba, Miriam; Mwamuka, Nomsa (2004). Makeba: The Miriam Makeba Story. Johannesburg: STE. ISBN 1-919855-39-4. OCLC 57637539. 
  • Schwarz-Bart, Simone; Schwarz-Bart, André; Réjous, Rose-Myriam (2003). Modern African Women. In Praise of Black Women, Volume 3. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin. ISBN 0-299-17270-8. OCLC 66731111. 
  • Nkrumah, Gamal (1–7 November 2001). "Mama Africa". Al-Ahram Weekly. Cairo, Egypt (558). Archived from the original on 7 March 2004. Retrieved 15 November 2010. 
  • Poet, J. (11 February 2009). "Miriam Makeba: Mama Africa Goes Home". Feature Story. New York: Crawdaddy!. Retrieved 14 November 2010. 
  • Sizemore-Barber, April (July–October 2012). "The Voice of (Which?) Africa: Miriam Makeba in America". Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. 13 (3-4): 251–276. doi:10.1080/17533171.2012.715416. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]