Miriam Makeba was born in 1933 in Prospect Township near Johannesburg. Her father was a teacher, and after his death seven years later, Makeba’s “sangoma” mother sent her to live with her grandmother in Pretoria. In total there were thirteen other grandkids staying with the grandmother.
She went to school in Pretoria until she reached the sixth grade. At the age of thirteen years she won a singing competition in a mission school. There were not sufficient funds to keep her in school, and she had to take up work as a domestic servant. In 1952 when she was nineteen, she had a baby from her first love, and left it to stay with her mother in Johannesburg.
Following the birth, Makeba resumed her job as domestic worker until she was invited by a cousin to join the Cuban Brothers. She stayed with them for two years, and one night, when she was singing with the Cuban Brothers at a charity show in Johannesburg, Nathan Mdledle, the leader of the Manhattan Brothers, told her “I like the way you carry a tune”. He then requested her to join his company. With the Manhattan Brothers, she toured South Africa, the former Rhodesia (Zimbabwe/Zambia) and the Congo up until 1957.
Soon after she joined them she made a record of MacKay Davashe’s “Lakushon-Ilanda”, which was later translated into English as “Lovely Lies”. Makeba never looked back, and in 1957 she joined the African Jazz Group, and met her first husband Sonny Pillay in London. Harry Belafonte in London discovered Makeba, also known as Mama Africa, in 1958 He groomed her well and she rose from a Xhosa village girl to the gracious cosmopolitan lady of song that she is today.
Later she went to New York, where she married Hugh Masekela and made her US debut November 1959 in The Steve Allen Show. She started out in The USA at a gig at the Village Vanguard, which used to be New York’s hippest jazz spot. Soon she became known and her appearances attracted people such as Miles Davis, Sidney Poitier and even Elizabeth Taylor and Bing Crosby to her shows.
Makeba went from strength to strength, and in 1962 she performed at President Kennedy’s famous birthday party in Madison Square Garden. At the same function Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday. In her early 30s (1967), she had a top-selling song on the Billboard singles charts – today that infectious dance tune, “Pata Pata,” has found new lease on life in commercials. It has been re-recorded for a new CD.
In 1959 Makeba took on the female lead in the musical King Kong. The musical, which was promoted as a “jazz opera”, was a big success in South Africa. To avoid the apartheid laws that divided the public, the musical was often performed in universities. That same year the American film director, Lionel Togosin, made a documentary film from South Africa on which she collaborated, and wanted her to present the film at the Venice Festival. She accepted the offer and got into hot water with the South African authorities, which reacted against the negative attention they had to face through the presentation of the film.
From underdeveloped townships in South Africa to the USA, Makeba came a long road from domestic servant to Mama Africa who entertained large New York audiences with old favourites like the Click Song, Mbube, Kilimanjaro as well as folk songs from the Congo and East African.
In 1968, after two unsuccessful marriages, Makeba married civil rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael, and lost her place as belle of the ball. Her gigs were cancelled and her career in the USA waned until the happenings in South Africa during the 1980s recaptured the American imagination. Carmichael died of prostate cancer in 1998, and she lost her only child, Bongi, due to complications during Bongi’s delivery of a stillborn baby.
Makeba was invited to appear before some of the greatest figures in the world including Haile Selassie, John F. Kennedy, and Francois Mitterand.
For many decades she has, together with her enchanting songs, made her way into the hearts of millions of people all over the globe, and in May 2002 she received the Swedish Polar Music Prize from the King of Sweden. For a period of thirty years she was as a citizen of the world – in the USA, later in Guinea, and returned to South Africa in 1990, with the end of apartheid.
Miriam Makeba passed away on 9 November 2008.