Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mandela leads tributes to 'Mama Afrika', songstress Miriam Makeba

'Mama Afrika' dies at Italian anti-Mafia concert

Nelson Mandela was among thousands of South Africans to pay tribute today to the singer and activist, Miriam Makeba, who died suddenly after taking part in a concert against the Italian Mafia.

Her death provoked shock and widespread mourning in a country enchanted by the sweetness and shining sound of her singing.

Mandela, now in his 91st year and who rarely makes public statements any more, led the tributes to Makeba. "She was South Africa's first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Afrika," he said.

"The sudden passing of our beloved Miriam has saddened us ? For many decades, starting in the years before we went to prison, MaMiriam featured prominently in our lives and we enjoyed her moving performances. When she went into exile she continued to make us proud as she used her worldwide fame to focus attention on the abomination of apartheid. Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours.

"It was fitting that her last moments were spent on a stage, enriching the hearts and lives of others - and again in support of a good cause."

Relatives and friends who first encouraged Makeba to sing compared her voice to that of a nightingale. Her distinctive style, which bewitched the world in the 1960s and 1970s, combined traditional African melodies, jazz and folk with the unique and dynamic rhythms of South Africa's black townships.

While she toured with Harry Belafonte and sang with Marilyn Monroe at John F. Kennedy's birthday party at Madison Square Garden in 1962, her music was banned in South Africa by apartheid governments. When she first travelled to New York in 1960 to perform with Belafonte, the Pretoria government refused to allow her to return home.

She lived in exile for the next 31 years. Mandela asked her to come home after his release from life imprisonment in February 1990 and when she arrived in Johannesburg she said: "I never understood why I couldn't come home. I never committed any crime."

Makeba collapsed shortly after a performance in the southern Italian town of Castel Volturno yesterday evening and died in hospital early today. She was paying homage to six Africans killed by the Camorra mafia two months ago and to the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano who exposed the murders and was himself threatened with death.

South Africa's foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement: "One of the greatest songstresses of our time has ceased to sing. 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's body is being flown back to South Africa for a funeral and burial in Johannesburg.

Makeba's career soared in America and Europe until 1968 when she married the black activist Stokeley Carmichael, "Honorary Prime Minister" of the Black Panther Party. She was in immediate trouble with the FBI and all her American concerts and recording contracts were cancelled.

The couple moved to the West African state of Guinea-Conakry, ruled by a dictator, Ahmed Sékou Touré, who imprisoned political opponents in camps, such as the notorious Camp Boiro National Guard Barracks, and drove tens of thousands of dissidents into exile. Carmichael took the name Kwame Touré. Makeba was given the resources to develop a distinctive West African style of music while representing her new country at the United Nations.

During this period in Sékou Touré's state, Makeba virtually disappeared from international view. But after her divorce from Carmichael and the death of her only child, her daughter Bongi, in 1985 she settled in Brussels and began performing to international audiences again. She remained popular, but the sheer sweetness of her young voice was gone.

Makeba's publicist Mark Lechat said the singer had suffered from severe arthritis and had been unwell for some time, appearing at concerts with the aid of a stick. She was married four times. One of her husbands was the trumpeter Hugh Masekela.


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