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Hamba kahle, Mama Africa
14 November 2008
A memorial service for Miriam Makeba will be held at the dome on Saturday

The great voice is silent as Miriam Makeba makes the final journey home. After decades of song, Makeba has taken her last bow.

T  HE death of Miriam Makeba leaves a great void among the millions of South Africans who grew up with her songs and drew inspiration from her spirited resistance against oppression.

These are the sad words from Executive Mayor Amos Masondo, who has sent the City's condolences to the Makeba family. "Johannesburg celebrates the life and achievements of Mama Africa. Together with all our compatriots we mourn a great loss."

Miriam Makeba
Miriam Makeba
Photo: Zar.co.za

Makeba, whose powerful voice and unwavering strength played a part in the fight against apartheid, died of a heart attack in the early hours of the morning on 10 November, in Castel Volturno, Italy; she was 76 years.

She had been singing at a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, an author who has received death threats from the Mafia for writing about organised crime. She collapsed while leaving the stage.

"In this city we will do everything in our power to build from all the positive legacy she left behind," Masondo added.

A legendary singer, Makeba will forever remain etched in the hearts of many.

Mama Africa
Popularly known as Mama Africa, Miriam Zenzi Makeba was born in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932 to a Swazi mother and Xhosa father. Coming from a musical family, Makeba quickly learned traditional African songs and explored jazz by listening to the radio and records. At the age of 13, she entered a talent show at a missionary school and walked off with the first prize.

Makeba rose to prominence in 1954 as a singer with the Manhattan Brothers before forming her own all-woman group, the Skylarks. They sang a blend of jazz and traditional South African melodies.

She left the country in 1959, after landing a lead role in the jazz musical King Kong, a tragic story about a boxer, Ezekiel "King Kong" Dlamini. It was a popular show in South Africa and had a run in London's West End in 1961.

During the same period, she appeared in the anti-apartheid documentary, Come Back Africa. This appearance, and her outspokenness against apartheid, raised the ire of the South African apartheid government, which revoked her citizenship and refused to allow her to return for her mother's funeral.

Still in London, Makeba met Harry Belafonte, a Jamaican American musician, actor and social activist who helped her to emigrate to the United States, where she built her career.

US releases
She released many of her most famous hits in the US, including Pata Pata, which became a hit worldwide and has been re-recorded by numerous international artists, The Click Song, and the Swahili song, Malaika. In 1966, Makeba received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording together with Harry Belafonte, for An Evening with Belafonte /Makeba. This album focused on the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid.

In 1964, Makeba married another South African exile, jazz icon Hugh Masekela. The two divorced two years later, although they remained lifelong friends. During that period, she battled cervical cancer and successfully recovered from surgery. While fighting her own pain, she continued to draw attention to the horrors of apartheid, speaking out against the oppression before the UN General Assembly n 1964 and 1975. The apartheid government responded by banning her recordings until 1988.

"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 [it]."

The singer became a favourite of the American public, even singing at President Kennedy's birthday concert. However, when she married the radical black activist and leader of the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, in 1968, her career took a knock. An unpopular union, it led to the cancellation of concerts and recording contracts.

Back to Africa
As a result, she moved to Guinea, in Africa, with her husband, where she continued to record songs and tour intensively. Makeba separated from Carmichael and they divorced in 1978; he was one of four husbands - she was also briefly married to South African ballad singer Sonny Pillay, but her first husband - whom she married at 18 - was James Kubay. He beat her until she landed in hospital. He was the father of her daughter, Bongi Makeba.

After her move to Guinea, Makeba continued to perform, primarily in Africa, South America and Europe. She was one of the entertainers at the famous Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, in October 1974. Ali won the fight, using his "rope-a-dope" strategy to tire his opponent.

A life filled with great sorrow hit rock bottom in 1985, with the deaths of Bongi and her grandson. She turned to religion and music to overcome her loss. In 1987, she joined US singer Paul Simon and local group Ladysmith Black Mambazo for the Graceland World Tour and by 1989 she had released two solo albums and written her autobiography, Makeba: My Story.

Then, after 30 years in exile, Makeba returned to South Africa in 1991, following Nelson Mandela's release from prison. Her first South African concert was a success, helping her launch a world tour and two successful albums, Eyes on Tomorrow (1991) and the Grammy-nominated Homeland (2000).

Makeba died of a heart attack in the early hours of the morning of 10 November, in Castel Volturno, Italy; she was 76 years old. She had been singing at a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, an author who has received death threats from the Mafia after writing about organised crime. She collapsed while leaving the stage.

Makeba is survived by her grandchildren, Nelson Lumumba Lee and Zenzi Monique Lee, and her great grandchildren Lindelani, Ayanda and Kwame.

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