Nigeria: Celebrities in Retirement Makeba, Still Mama Africa

5 February 2007

Lagos — She told the world that the March 31 to April 1, 2006 seventh Cape Town Jazz Festival in South Africa, was to be her last stage appearance before settling into a much desired life in retirement. But that was not to be.

The Jazz festival came and went and she never retired, because on April 29, 2006, she made an unprecedented appearance at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, where she practically stole the show from such other veterans like Onyeka Onwenu.

That AMAA appearance on a Nigerian stage was to be first time since 28 years, 7 months ago she performed at the 2nd Festival of Black Arts, otherwise called Festac 77 in Lagos.

Such has been the style of the indefatigable songstress, fondly called Mama Africa, who so dominated the African music scence and was so popular here even among those who barely understood her South African Xhosa lyrics.

Indeed, if the African music were to have a hall of fame, this woman of songs would occupy undoubtedly the most prominent position in it, at least to underscore her position and status as the most popular voice and name out of Africa.

With a music career that spans over six decades and or which time she put out nearly a dozen albums excluding singles, Miriam Makeba strides the African music terrain with such familiarity that could give off the false impression about her true country of origin.

Born on March 4, 1932 in Johannesburg, South Africa, 'the Empress of African Song' has for many become synonymous with South African music, just as she put African music on the world map in the 60s.

Makeba began her professional career in 1950, when she joined Johannesburg group, the Cuban Brothers. She came to national prominence during the mid-50s as a member of local leading touring group, the Manhattan Brothers. She performed widely with her outfit in South Africa, Rhodesia and the Congo until 1957, when she was recruited as a star attraction in the touring package show African Jazz and Variety.

She remained with the troupe for two years, again touring South Africa and neighbouring countries, before, leaving to join the cast of the "township musical" King Kong, which also featured such future international stars as Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa.

The opportunity came following her starring role in American film-maker Lionel Rogosin's documentary; Come Back Africa, shot in South Africa. When the Italian government invited Makeba to attend the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival in spring 1959, she privately decided not to return home.

Shortly afterwards, furious at the international uproar created by the film's powerful expose of Apartheid, her South African passport was withdrawn. In London after the Venice Festival, Makeba met Harry Belafonte, who offered to help her gain an entry Visa and work permit to the United States of America (USA) along with the usual guest appearances on television and jazz clubs.

As a consequence of this exposure, Makeba became a nationally feted performer within a few months of arriving in the USA, combining her musical activities with outspoken denuciations of apartheid. In 1963, after an impassioned testimony before the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid, all her records were banned in South Africa.

Married for a few years to fellow South African emigre Masekela, in 1968, Makeba divorced him in order to marry the Black Panther activist, Stokeley Carmichael-a liaison that severely damaged her following among older white American record buyers. Promoters were no longer interested, and tours and record contracts were cancelled. As a result of this, the couple moved to Guinea in West Africa. He was to divorce him later.

Makeba returned to South Africa, 16 years ago in 1990 at the end of apartheid after spending 30 years in exile.

In a way it could be said that personal strokes of fate afflicted her all those years in exile: The break-up of her marriages with Carmichael-which was her third marriage already, that also included the one with jazz icon Hugh Masekela, coupled with the tragic death of her daughter Bongi, who like her mother, Mariam, was a fantastic singer and a gifted songwriter on top of it.

However, despite the bitter memories of all these, Makeba kept on singing, along with her granddaughter Zenzi Lee in her background choir and a great-grandson in her entourage. She also kept on appearing in movies, as in the 2002 anti-apartheid documentary, entitled: Amandla!.

Recently, she was also involved in her own charity project for abused young women in South Africa and supporting campaigns against hard drugs and AIDS.

Practically, retired from active music, as far as album making is concerned, Makeba now restricts her appearances to very special command performances like that seventh Cape Town Jazz Festival which featured the likes of Manu Dibango and Caiphus Semenya, both of whom are well decorated jazzists on the international scene from Africa.

Her special appearance at the AMAA show in Yenagoa was under the 'special' invitation of the governor, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.

These days, Makeba spends much of her time in London where she resides. Although, she also spends some time in South Africa, her birthplace.

At 75, (in March), the Mama Africa of the entertainment industry keeps going.

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