Monday, November 10, 2008

Miriam Makeba: RIP

Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 - 10 November 2008)

I am really without words. I still remember wearing out the grove on my mother's Pata Pata album. It was an album Makeba did circa 1967, which included some live cuts, and one of my favorite albums to play. I would jam out to the title cut, and look at the image of the beautiful Makeba whose spirit always seemed victorious no matter what. With her voice she made you know joy, wonder, sorrow, grief, hope, and faith. I always remember her singing "Ring, Bell" with its refrain of "all is well." Every time I heard that song, I was uplifted. Makeba was and is a wonder. She will be greatly missed.

Makeba collapsed while performing at a benefit in support of Italian writer, Roberto Saviano, who is facing death threats from the mafia. Thanks writer/musician Ned Sublette for explaining that in the below report the Sicilian organized crime syndicate Cosa Nostra or Mafia, is spelled with an upper case "M," while the lower case "mafia" refers to the Camorra, which is Neopolitan, but apparently no less dangerous.

Here are two reports one from's Rome coverage, and the other from Johannesburg AFP.

AFP: "South Africa mourns Makeba, musical 'mother' of the nation"

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) — Miriam Makeba, the musical symbol of black South Africans' struggle against apartheid, has died at the age of 76 after collapsing at a concert in Italy.

Nelson Mandela led tributes Monday to the singer who had international hits with songs such as "Pata Pata" and "The Click Song" while she was banned from entering her homeland.

"She was South Africa's first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of 'Mama Africa' . She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours," Mandela said.

Ever the activist, Makeba collapsed after singing in support of an Italian author facing Mafia death threats. She was treated while the audience shouted for an encore but died in hospital from a heart attack, officials said.

Makeba "died performing what she did best -- an ability to communicate a positive message through the art of singing," said South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

He called her "one of the greatest songstresses of our time."

Born in Johannesburg on March 4, 1932, Makeba became one of Africa's best known singers and while Mandela was in prison took up the battle against apartheid through her music.

South Africa revoked her citizenship in 1960 and refused to let her return for her mother's funeral. Makeba spent more than three decades in exile, living in the United States, Guinea and Europe.

Her music was outlawed in her homeland after she appeared in an anti-apartheid film. But she was an international success, winning a Grammy award for Best Folk Recording with US singer Harry Belafonte in 1965 for the album "An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba".

"I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots," she said in her biography. "Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realising."

But she also met controversy abroad. The third of her five marriages -- to civil rights activist and Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968 -- provoked anger in the United States and some of her concerts and contracts were cancelled.

She was also briefly married to trumpeter Hugh Masekela, another famous South African artist who spent long years in exile under apartheid.

Makeba was the daughter of a Swazi mother and Xhosa father.

She started singing professionally in the early 1950s with a group called The Manhattan Brothers, with whom she toured the United States in 1959.

Her career at home took off in the same year when she appeared in a musical version of the film "King Kong". She also made a brief appearance in an early anti-apartheid film "Come Back, Africa" which earned an invitation to pick up an award at the Venice film festival.

Once there however, it became clear that her life would be in danger if she went home, where harsh apartheid laws had been enacted in 1958. South African authorities revoked her citizenship.

Makeba had her biggest hit in 1967 with "Pata Pata" -- Xhosa for "Touch Touch", describing a township dance -- but unwittingly had signed away all royalties on the song.

She was often short of money and could not afford to buy a coffin when her only daughter, Bondi, died aged 36 in 1985. She buried her alone, barring a handful of journalists from covering the funeral.

According to her biography, she also battled cervical cancer and a string of unhappy relationships. She denied rumours of alcoholism.

While she was still in enforced exile, she performed with Paul Simon in the US singer's 1987 "Graceland" concert in Zimbabwe, neighbouring South Africa.

She finally returned to her homeland in the 1990s after Mandela was released from prison and the apartheid system began to collapse. It took six years to find someone in South Africa to produce a record with her. She entitled it "Homeland".

Sunday's benefit concert was at Castel Volturno, near southern Naples, to support Roberto Saviano, author of the best-selling mafia expose "Gomorrah."

Makeba was the last on stage, performing for the 1,000 crowd for half an hour before collapsing, according to Carlo Hermann, an AFP photographer at the concert in the town which is considered a stronghold of the Camorra mafia.

"There were calls for an encore and at that moment someone asked if there was a doctor in the house. Miriam Makeba had fainted and was lying on the floor."

ICPublications/AfricaAsiaNews: "In last act, Makeba leant voice to anti-mafia struggle"

Ever the activist, South African legend Miriam Makeba, the musical symbol of the struggle against apartheid, died after singing in support of an Italian author facing death threats from the mafia.

The benefit concert in Castel Volturno, near southern Naples, on Sunday was staged to show solidarity for Roberto Saviano, author of the best-selling mafia expose "Gomorrah."

Underscoring the uphill struggle against the Camorra, the workers who set up the stage for the concert were forced to pay extortion money, said Castel Volturno mayor Francesco Nuzzo.

"The concert organisers are going to lodge a complaint in the coming days," Nuzzo told AFP.

About 1,000 people attended the concert in Castel Volturno, a stronghold of the Camorra mafia that was denounced in Saviano's "Gomorrah," whose film version won second prize at the 2008 Cannes film festival and is now in the running for an Oscar.

Castel Volturno was the scene of the shooting deaths in September of six African immigrants by a suspected Camorra commando unit in circumstances that remain unclear. An Italian businessman was also killed in a separate attack the same day.

The town plans a memorial service for Makeba in the coming days, the mayor said.

The 76-year-old Makeba died of a heart attack after collapsing onstage while fans were shouting for encores.

Makeba had been the last to go onstage, performing for half an hour before collapsing, according to Carlo Hermann, an AFP photographer who covered the concert and witnessed fellow singers rush to her aid.

Last month, six Nobel prizewinners including Makeba's compatriot Desmond Tutu launched an appeal to urge the Italian government to assume its "responsibility" to protect Saviano, 28.

Altogether some 100,000 people have joined the petition, prompted by Saviano's announcement that he would flee Italy after learning that the Camorra want him dead by Christmas.

Signatories also include Nobel peace laureate Mikhail Gorbachev and literature prizewinners Orhan Pamuk of Turkey, German author Guenter Grass and Italian playwright Dario Fo.

If Saviano leaves Italy, he would become the first writer to do so because of mafia death threats.

• NPR coverage and past interviews and profiles
Guardian UK notice.
TimesOnline UK notice, "Mandela leads tributes to 'Mama Africa', songstress Miriam Makeba." (this links to article in which Makeba's former husband, famed trumpter Hugh Masekela, asserts that the South African government is fearful of the power of music as a catalyst for social change)
• In the New York Times Fashion and Style blog Alexandra Marshall remembers "The Style of Miriam Makeba." I take offense at her characterization of "Pata Pata" as "more of a rump-shaker than an overt indictment of the sicko regime ruling her country at the time." Say What??! (OK, somebody send this Ms. Marshall some of the writing of Emma Goldman, and Thomas DeFrantz, please!) Wisely Marshall resists editorializing any further, writing, "[w]e’ll let others do the heavy lifting on singing Makeba’s full praises, and simply take a moment here to bask in the joy of her style." (phew)Thank you!
• The New York Times coverage proper, which indicates the cause of Makeba's death as cardiac arrest.

Below check Miriam Makeba performing "Pata Pata" on Brasilian television in the mid-60s. The guitarist is the great Brasilian musician Sivuca (1930 - 2006) who was better known for playing the accordion, and perhaps in this country for his work with Makeba, Harry Belafonte, and Oscar Brown, Jr. (1926 - 2005). According to one biography, Sivuca arranged "Pata Pata" for Makeba. In Makeba's narration of "Pata Pata" I saw the revolutionary power of music and dance, and the strength of a community renewing its bonds with a weekly communal gathering, and yes the power of the sensual to reconnect each of us with our own and other's humanity in the face of devastating oppression. That's how I account for the luminous spirit radiating from Makeba in this performance.

"Khawuleza" (1966) recorded in Stockholm, Sweden with Sivuca on guitar.

"Mayibaye," again in Switzerland circa, 1966. Sivuca, guitar and accordion; William Slater, bass; Leopoldo Fleming, Jr., percussion. From the DVD, Miriam Makeba - Live At Berns Salonger, Stockholm, Switzerland, 1966. Available at Tower Video.

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