I haven’t blogged in the past two weeks because I have been in South Africa and Swaziland. While there, I picked up some great South African jazz from Zacks Nkosi, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, the Manhattan Brothers, and Dennis Mpale, and of course some Lucky Dube, but I also found plenty of Miriam Makeba still making the rounds. So I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the legendary Miriam Makeba and her impact on Jamaican music.
Zensi Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, was born in 1932 in Johannesburg where today there is a street named after her. She was jailed with her mother, a Swazi, when she was an infant and her father, a Xhosa, died when Makeba was just six years old. Like many vocalists, Makeba began singing in her school choir and she started singing professionally with the Manhattan Brothers in the early 1950s before joining an all-female group, the Skylarks.
It was in 1956 that Makeba produced perhaps her most well-known hit, “Pata Pata.” This song, and here is one of the Jamaican connections, was covered by Millicent Todd, better known as Patsy, who recorded it for Sonia Pottinger in 1967 as “Pata Pata Rocksteady.” Patsy also recorded “The Retreat Song,” or Jikele Maweni, another Miriam Makeba song that is sung in the Xhosa language. The lyrics tell of a vicious stick fight.
Like Jikele Maweni, Makeba’s lyrics were typical love songs crooned by women during the 50s and 60s. Instead, Makeba’s songs were political and social commentaries on the Apartheid government in her homeland. They also celebrated Africa with content on culture and folklore, sung in the Xhosa language instead of Afrikaans or English which was a bold move during these years since the government forced the Afrikaans language on its citizens to the point of death (the Hector Pieterson massacre of over 600 school children in 1976) as a way of exerting power over and oppressing the black Africans. As a result, Makeba was banned from her country, forced to live in exile for years. When Makeba traveled to the United States to further her career, her mother died and so Makeba returned home for her funeral. She was denied entry. From 1960 until 1990, Makeba lived in exile. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he encouraged Makeba to return home which she did.
In an interview with Roger Steffens in 1988, Makeba said, “I’ve always been branded as a political singer. I never set out to sing politics; I just happen to come from a country that is oppressing my people. And I grew up under that oppression. And so I sing about my own life and the lives of my people. . . . So, the strength I get is from my people. And I get if from my mother and my father and my grandmother . . . and I get strength from all the people who have given me their love in different countries.”
Makeba was married five times to such men as fellow South African legendary musician Hugh Masekela and Black Panther Stokley Carmichael. She has won a Grammy Award in 1966 for her work with Harry Belafonte, and she has worked with such artists as Paul Simon, Nina Simone, and Dizzy Gillespie. She has appeared on the Cosby Show (now if that’s not success, I don’t know what is), and she has performed for John F. Kennedy’s birthday, as well as Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium. She died in 2008.
Another Jamaican connection to Miriam Makeba is that Makeba actually came to Kingston to perform for adoring fans in 1965 and again in 1967 and 1973 during her exile. Makeba visited countries all over the world during this time. In 1967 she performed with The Paragons, The Jamaicans, and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. She also performed at a charity ball at the Myrtle Bank Hotel, invited by Edward and Mitzy Seaga and Byron Lee. She returned in 1973 to perform and met with P.J. Patterson who was the Minister of Industry and Tourism (prior to this he was the attorney who defended Don Drummond in his murder case, and after this he became prime minister). Patterson paid tribute to Makeba for her struggle for the recognition and dignity of her South African people and the excellence of her art. It was at this time that the Jamaican government also revoked the order prohibiting Stokely Carmichael from entering Jamaica, an order that was made in 1967.
Why was Makeba so popular in Jamaica? Perhaps because she sang of common themes—themes of Africa, oppression, struggle, and survival during a time when the message needed to be heard the most. She celebrated her people, and as a result, her people celebrated her back. We all still celebrate her legend today, every time we put on one of her tunes. I am proud to have played her music for my young children who now sing along with her songs, although they may not know the language or its meaning. What they do understand is that universal language of music and so we pass it along to the next generation.
Here is an excerpt from the article from the Daily Gleaner, December 3, 1967 with the headline “Miriam Makeba to Return to the Regal.”
THE EXCITING Miriam Makeba — “The Voice of Africa” — returns to Jamaica with her world renowned troupe to give two performances in “The Miriam Makeba Show” at the Regal Theatre in Kingston this week Saturday. The two shows scheduled for 7.00 and 11.30 p.m. will also include a special contingent of specially selected Jamaican artistes including Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Hugh Falkner who recently won the coveted Best Singer Award in the 1967 Brazilian World Festival, Archie Lewis, Louise Bennett and The Jamaicans. The fascination of her eloquent voice, the warmth of her quiet humility, and the charm of her personality have combined to make Miriam Makeba the first South African songstress to attain international stardom. She has been referred to as “a high voltage star,” a typical example of the work camps, the bush villages and the city slums,” “a highly disciplined performer with a chic sophisticated style,” “a totally untutored performer with the stark simplicity of a primitive style and a natural feeling for the jazz idiom,” “a deliberate, very refined artiste,” Makeba, it seems, is all things to all people. Her repertoire, ranging from African songs in Zulu, Swazi, Xosa, Sothor and Shangaan languages and dialects to melodies sung in Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, Yiddish, Indonesian, and English, often features one of the most spectacular vocal effects in contemporary music, her famous Xosa click songs. In these, the featured sound has been variously described as something like “uncorking a bottle,” “the quick brush of sandpaper on sandpaper,” “two sticks striking against each other,” “the click of castanets,” “a glottal click and tribal panting,” “the explosive sound of a locomotive,” “the quick click of ‘tsk’ of tongue against palate,” and other bits of imagery that fall somewhat short of the actual, sound of the Xosa click songs. The unique star has only one suggestion that might help in categorising her. “When people ask me what I sing like,” she says, “the best I can do is tell them, ‘Come and hear me.’”
Here is columnist Harry Milner’s review of the show in the Daily Gleaner, December 11, 1967 with the headline, “The Velvet Voice of Africa.”
Last time Miriam Makeba came to Jamaica she gave a concert; this time her ”Show” was closer to cabaret….very much more polished, with a greater emphasis on presentation and considerably shorter. She wore two different costumes, both with a Nefertiti-style headdress, the first a glorious white creation in which she was a truly regal presence.
Happily, this time, she was not suffering from the appalling microphone system that marred her last appearance, and her voice came through, using her own “mike” as clear as a bell and as soft as velvet. As before, her programme was sufficiently varied, though this time there was a little more emphasis on songs of protest, such as the lovely “The Answer is Love” and Jeremy Taylor’s exciting song from the South African revue, “Wait a Minute, A Piece of Ground,” (which is a sort of potted history of her country ) and “When I Pass On”; but still her most exciting music remains the Xosa and Transkei wedding and tribal songs that she has made so indisputably her own. She included also her amusing “Poor Old Man” and also a fine Brazilian work. Her performance would have been a complete triumph had there had not been a slight misunderstanding just before the break in her show. Miss Makeba was apparently unaware of the terrible acoustics of the Regal, and she pitched her voice too low when introducing her songs for those in the far stalls or the balcony to hear. A few of the audience called on her to speak up and this she looked upon as a breach of courtesy. It was all very unfortunate as the crowd really loved her, and I think that they were quite as hurt as her by this unfortunate and jarring incident.
Milton Grayson who sang three numbers, whilst Miss Makeba changed came into a rather changed atmosphere, but soon won the audience back with a gloriously strong voice in “A Cuban Lament” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” Harmony was restored, while the two artistes brought a real party spirit to the Johannesburg “Patta Patta” urban song and dance . . . so we all parted good friends and Miriam Makeba received the hearty ovation that she deserved.
The first half of the show in which Jamaican artistes and Adam Wade performed was spoilt by bad “miking,” which was particularly hard on Archie Lewis with his “Old Man River” and “Edelweiss.” Archie somehow got hold of the worst one of the two microphones. Adam Wade was luckier, and his three numbers, including “Julie on My Mind” and fast soul offering went over well. Of the local trios The Paragons were much more successful than The Jamaicans, who in one of their numbers sounded abysmally Alabaman. Byron Lee accompanied this half of the show well, but musically Miss Makeba’s threesome was a great deal more pleasant with a very sensitive Brazilian doubling up on guitar and accordion. Miss Lou, as the “Voice of Jamaica,” immediately preceding Miriam Makeba as “The Voice of Africa,” was at her cozy best.