Miriam Makeba: Singer banned from her native South Africa for fighting apartheid

'Retire? I will sing till the day I die" declared Miriam Makeba in her 2004 biography Makeba. True to her word, the most famous African woman of her generation – popularly known as "Mama Africa" – had just taken part in a concert in Italy in support of the writer Roberto Saviano on Sunday when she was taken ill.

Exiled from South Africa for 31 years, she lived a peripatetic life and was showered in awards and accolades, but at times became a fugitive because of her stance on apartheid, as well as for affiliations that others found awkward. In response, she would tell audiences, "I don't sing about politics; I sing the truth."

At the dawn of the 1960s, Makeba was the first African singer to become a worldwide household name. She sang in many languages but always took pride in her musical roots, having realised at the start of her career that this would the basis of her appeal. So she became best known for the likes of "Pata Pata" and "The Click Song", which featured the distinctive clicking sounds of Xhosa, the first language of her father, who died when she was six.

Makeba's first name, Zenzile, means "you have no one to blame but yourself" or "you have done it to yourself", which seems unfair, considering how much her life was governed by external forces. In her time, she survived cancer, plane and car crashes, political coups and jailings.

The youngest of six childen, Makeba was only 18 days old when she was imprisoned with her mother Nomkomendelo, whose "crime" was brewing and selling beer, which was illegal at the time for Africans. This was before apartheid, which would make life even more difficult when it became the state system in 1948.

Makeba enjoyed singing from as early as she could remember. Her mother played traditional instruments and her father had a singing group called The Mississippi 12. Although she hated church, Makeba enjoyed the singing, and at home she learned traditional songs as well as those of Ella Fitzgerald from her brother, Joseph.

After the death of her father, she moved with her mother to Riverside in Pretoria, where, after sneaking repeatedly into rehearsals by the choir her sister Mizpha sang with, she was eventually allowed to join. She won a missionary school talent show at 13 and soon began singing at weddings and other celebrations, although she was also forced to make a living as a servant for white families.

At 17 she became pregnant to James Kubali and had her first and only child, Sibongile ("Bongi"), but Kubali's infidelity and violence ended the partnership, leaving her dependent once again on her mother, who had become an isangoma, or traditional healer. Her house resonated with traditional singing, drumming and dancing, which further inspired Miriam.

The following year, leaving her daughter with her mother, she left for Johannesburg, where she joined a group called the Cuban Boys. They were inspired by another vocal group popular in South Africa, the Manhattan Brothers, and three years later (by which time Makeba was developing a reputation around the townships) they needed a replacement for the smokey-voiced Emily Kwenane, and recruited Makeba. In 1953 she recorded her first hit "Laku Tshoni Ilanga" with them. She soon became a national star, earning the nickname "the Nightingale".

In 1956 Gallotone Records formed a new girl group featuring Makeba called the Sunbeams, which eventually became the Skylarks. Over the next three years they made around 100 recordings of gospel, marabi jazz, traditional tunes and Sangoma songs which have since become recognised as some of Makeba's best work. All this without a mention of royalties, management or intellectual property – something Makeba would come to rue.

In 1958, Makeba joined African Jazz and Variety, where she met and became romantically involved with the trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. She also took part in the documentary Come Back Africa, about life under apartheid. She won the lead female role in the hugely popular musical King Kong, but it was the premiere of Come Back Africa that precipitated her departure from South Africa in 1959.

The film won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival, and from there Makeba travelled on to London. When she appeared on the BBC programme In Town Tonight she met the singer Harry Belafonte, who set her up on her next big step – America. With his contacts, on 30 November 1959 she got a spot on The Steve Allen Show, with its audience of around 60 million. She was literally an overnight sensation, and was soon singing in New York jazz clubs and Las Vegas. Time magazine covered her story and she met her idols such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

But the sweetness of success was short-lived: in South Africa the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 claimed the lives of two of her relatives. Her brief marriage to Shunna Pillay ended shortly after her arrival in the US, and her daughter Bongi joined her in New York. But Makeba became an exile when the South African government made her passport invalid.

Her first album, Miriam Makeba, in 1960, was backed by Belafonte's band, although the deal with RCA buying her out of her Gallotone contract meant she never saw any royalties. It was followed by The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba, and there were appearances at Carnegie Hall (alongside Nina Simone) and The Newport Jazz Festival as well as tours abroad which made her aware of her iconic status and its political significance.

She also became involved in African-American politics. In 1962 she sang at President John F. Kennedy's 45th birthday celebration, and in July 1963 gave the first of two addresses that decade to the United Nations calling for action against apartheid. Her citizenship was revoked. In the same year, after collapsing onstage, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, surviving only by having a hysterectomy. She married Masekela, but the pressure she was under (and Masekela's addictions) meant their marriage lasted only two years.

In 1966, the album An Evening With Belafonte and Miriam Makeba (1965) won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording. However, things began to unravel professionally in America when she married the Trinidadian civil rights activist and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. The couple were harassed by the FBI, record deals and contracts for shows were cancelled. The couple moved to Guinea in 1969.

Makeba continued to tour internationally, enjoying the patronage of the dictator President Sekou Touré, relishing the vibrant artistic revival he had initiated. Her marriage to Carmichael lasted till 1973, after which she stayed on in Guinea, where her career went into a relative decline.

In 1974 she sang at the festival that accompanied "The Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and made two more appearances before the UN, in 1975 and 1976. That same year, she recorded Masekela's "Soweto Blues", about the Sharpeville massacre.

In 1984 Sekou Touré died and when Makeba's daughter Bongi passed away the following year, she left for Belgium. In 1986 her fortunes revived when she joined Paul Simon's Graceland World Tour. However, it landed her in hot water, as it did Simon, since it contravened the UN cultural boycott she had been instrumental in instigating.

The late 1980s saw the last of Makeba's great recordings, the return-to-roots albums Sangoma (1988) and Welela (1989). In February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and in June she returned to South Africa to a heroine's welcome. In 1992 she starred in the film Sarafina! about the Soweto uprisings and was reinstated as a South African citizen. In 2000, her album Homeland received a Grammy nomination, and she appeared in the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony in 2002.

Makeba had decided to retire in 2005 when she embarked on a world tour, but it was a long goodbye, perhaps exacerbated by continuing financial problems as well as struggles with alcohol and arthritis. Her most recent UK appearance was in Trafalgar Square for Africa Day on 28 May 2007, when she gave a feisty performance.

Jon Lusk

Zenzile Miriam Makeba, singer, songwriter and activist: born Prospect Township, Johannesburg 4 March, 1932; married four times (one child, deceased); died Castel Volturno, Italy 9 November 2008.

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