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Mama Afrika Remembered

2008-11-10 12:39
My life has been like a yo-yo. One minute I’m dining with presidents and emperors; the next I'm hitchhiking - Miriam Makeba

After initial South African successes with Afro-doo-wop pioneers the Manhattan Brothers and her own girl group the Skylarks in the 50s, starring roles in the seminal black jazz opera King Kong (1959), the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back Africa (1960) allowed Makeba the chance to advance her career in exile. Building on the rapturous reception she received during her residency at New York’s Village Vanguard, in 1960 she released her self-titled debut album. The “exotic” timbres of her bewitching Xhosa vocals on Afro-pop-jazz standards like the "Click Song" had Time Magazine hailing Makeba as "the most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years".

In 1966 she became the first African artist to win a Grammy Award for her album with Harry Belafonte, An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. But it wasn’t just her music that earned this Sangoma’s daughter the status of “Mama Afrika”. It was also her politics. Her marriage to Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968 resulted in American blacklisting. But that didn’t stop Makeba. She spent the next two decades promoting the cause of African liberation as Guinea’s UN delegate (for which she received the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize in 1968), and travelled worldwide with Paul Simon’s wide Graceland tour of 1987/8, before her triumphant South African homecoming in 1990.

10 songs that made Miriam Makeba "Mama Afrika

Lakutshn, Ilanga
The 1953.debut single that started it all: a shy, yet stunning young songbird joins the Manhattan Brothers and proves she’s got some serious blues diva chops on this haunting rendition of Mackay Davashe’s African jazz standard.

The Click Song
While much of the magic of The Manhattan Brothers’ celebratory anthem lies in the “exotic” timbres of her Xhosa vocal “clicks” (well, for Western ears anyway), it was her breezily smooth Afro-pop phrasing that soon had critics hailing Miriam as South Africa’s answer to Sarah Vaughan.
Pata Pata
1967, and Miriam busts into the Billboard charts with this impeccably funky cover of Dorothy Masuka’s addictive dance instruction ditty that marries township marabi-jazz grooves and samba-kissed swing into an infectious Afro-pop delight.

Whether it’s her simple melodic folk lilt on the rendition off her self-titled 1960 featuring the Chad Mitchell Trio or her sensitive swing on the Live At Bern’s outing, Miriam’s renditions of Solomon Linda’s “Mbube” knew the secret ingredient for ages – jazz simply don’t mean a thing if it doesn’t make your soul swing.

Pasop Verwoerd
The revolution in four part harmony starts here. The summery choral lilt and deceptively breezy Afro-pop melodies mask a seriously political message that was lost in translation for the oppressive apartheid state censors, but immediately became a toy-toying cry for the struggle masses who would chant "Beware Verwoerd" at protest rallies across the country.

Her penchant for swinging through traditional Xhosa wedding songs, airy Afro-Indonesian moods and catchy Calypso cocktails sporting a sexy leopard-skin dress may have bejazzled the American pundits, but as her haunting live rendition of Christopher Songxaka’s struggle ode proves, it was the sound of a South African émigré channeling her homesickness through an exiled lens that most bewitched.

African Convention
Mama Afrika reinvigorates her songbook with the cream of South Africa’s young jazz crop including Kesivan Naidoo (drums), Herbie Tsoaeli (bass), Louis Mhlanga (guitar), Andile Yenana (piano) and McCoy Mrubata (sax) on this celebratory Afro-funk jam off her first album for Gallo in almost 40 years, Reflections.

Ngalala Phantsi
Mama Afrika goes back to her roots on this stripped down, acoustic rendition of one of the Xhosa folk songs she learned to sing from her Sangoma mother. While the absence of swing might befuddle jazz purists, the spare, almost hymnal acoustic folk feel provides the perfect platform to showcase Makeba's most bewitching Afro-blues phrasing in ages.

Mas Que Nada
When Miriam Makeba said “we understand the importance of Cuba”, she wasn’t just referring to Havana cigars and the revolutionary icon that spawned a thousand T-shirts, Ché. What Mama Afrika was talking about was Cuban music - that cooking polyrhythmic pulse simmering at the core of Cuban life that has so much in common with African jazz.

Soweto Blues
Frothy Afro-pop diva or sultry quiet storm jazz seductress? Nope. As this impeccably funky Afrobeat rendition of ex-husband Hugh Maskela's classic political protest tale of the Soweto uprising, when it came to Mama Afrika, none of the stereotypes applied.

- Miles Keylock

Over a career spanning more than five decades she was a singer, actress, and political activist. She performed for presidents ranging from John F Kennedy and Fidel Castro to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and our own Nelson Mandela. She even had three private audiences with the Pope. She was “Mama Afrika”, the Empress of African Song and the most influential African diva of all time.

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