As Tears of Joy Turn into Tears of Sorrow – Miriam Makeba dies at 76 – A (different) Tribute to the Singer and Black Activist
Nov, 10, 2008Posted by
The South African artist, also known as “Mama Africa”, died after suffering a heart attack last night in Castel Volturno, Italy, where she performed at an Anti-Camorra concert in support of the Italian writer and journalist Roberto Saviano. For all of those who have never heard her name, they most definitely know her song “Pata Pata” with which she gained worldwide success. Here a quick reminder:
Representing the pan-Africanist credo on the international stage she became the voice and symbol of the Anti-Apartheid struggle and was therefore banned from South Africa. After more than 30 years, persuaded by the freed Nelson Mandela, she returned to her native country in 1990.
Since tomorrow’s newspaper articles (as well as their already published article’s online) will furnish their readers Miriam Makeba’s biographical data, in this post I would like to describe the black singer and activist from a different point of view, with the words of another black activist, namely with those of Stokely Carmichael, whom she had been married to from 1968-1973.
In his autobiography “Ready for Revolution – The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael”, the Trinidadian activist a.k.a Kwame Ture, dedicates numerous pages to the woman he loved profoundly.
This is what he reports on his first “encounter” with Miriam Makeba:
“[The Radio Deejay] promised us a treat: ‘Tonight I’ve got something special in store for you. [...] An extraordinary singer, a young woman from South Africa.’ An African singer! I sat up in bed. At that time I’m pretty sure that I didn’t know a single artist from the continent. [The Deejay] went on to make it clear that although this sister was from South Africa and sang songs coming out of her African culture, much of what she sang could, musically speaking, be seen as jazz. I was hooked. It was a school night but I sat up. I refused to surrender to sleep before hearing this incredible new African artist.
Finally [the Deejay] announced the new singer. [...] ‘When you listen, listen to the clarity and purity of tone, the excellence of the diction, the exquisite pronunciation, and most of all, the extraordinary musical sensuousness and control. And try to remember that this is an English folk song, but listen to how she transforms it and takes it over.’
[The Deejay] was right. If anything his introduction had been understated. The voice, the arrangement, the effect, were just incredible. Unlike anything I’d ever heard. I was blown away. I mean blown away, Jack.
But [the Deejay] and Miss Makeba were not done with the kid. Not by a long shot. The best was yet to be, because then [the Deejay] said ‘now we’ll listen to a song in her own language’. Those of you who know the record will recall that she introduces the song in a soft, husky, irresistibly seductive voice: ‘This song, the name of which is Qongqothwane, is unpronounceable by whites in my country. Because they cannot say Qongqothwane, they call it the Click Song.’
Man, I went off even before the song. I went off at her gentle satire of the linguistic failings of the Afrikaners. Besides which, the song was great. I think it may have been the first African song I consciously heard. The melody working with the rhythm was infectious, at once naggingly familiar yet totally new and exotic. It made me tingle and tap my feet. Of course, I could not understand a single word, but the sounds of the language seemed hauntingly familiar. It was as though you knew the tune, and the sound of words you didn’t understand at all, well enough to sing along, anticipating the end of each phrase perfectly. That was my first time with this feeling of seeming to recognize something I’d never previously experienced. [...] I was gone. I mean in loove, Jack. What was her name? She’s from South Africa, but what is her name, Jack? I was desperately trying to remember. Mercifully, [the Deejay] repeated ‘Miriam Makeba’, the name of the album and the label.
I was on the local record store as soon as school was over the next day asking the cleark to order the record. When it came, I could scarcely believe my eyes. The owner of that incredible voice was young and absolutely beautiful. Her rich, smooth brown skin seemd to glow. Her strong yet delicate features were those of a clsassic Xhosa beauty. And, the beauty of the African woman, she wore her hair natural.[...] I rushed home to play the record. The first person I saw was my sister Janeth. ‘Janeth, look. this is the woman I’m gonna marry. I must mary this woman’, I cried.”
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