Miriam Makeba was from South Africa and led an interesting life, which included her recording of a song that reached number twelve on the charts in the United States in 1967, and her marriage to a man who put a record at number one the year following Miram's achievement. Miriam was the first black South African to rise to international stardom, and she came to be known as the Empress of African Song and as Mama Afrika.
She was born in Prospect Township near Johannesburg, in 1932, as a Xhosa, one of the Bantu people inhabiting the eastern part of Cape Province, South Africa. Her full name in Xhosa would take up several lines, but is shortened to Zensi Miriam Makeba. Her father was a schoolteacher. Miriam attended Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria and sang in the choir, while during the same time helping her mother to clean people's homes.
From 1954 to 1957 Miriam toured with a singing group known as the Black Manhattan Brothers. She then began appearing in musical reviews through which she became acquainted with many of the leading South African musicians, and she formed a group known as the Skylarks. Apartheid was a raging issue in South Africa at the time and in 1958 Miriam appeared in the anti-apartheid film Come Back Africa. She joined the cast of the musical review King Kong in 1959. A show about a boxer, the troupe performed mostly in South Africa and in London, and it included South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela in its orchestra. As race relations deteriorated the political situation in South Africa worsened, and the troupe left South Africa.
Miriam Makeba appreared on British television in 1959, then moved to the United States. She became acquainted with Harry Belafonte, who helped her career along, aiding her in gaining appearances on the Steve Allen TV show for a time. She performed at some of the top clubs in the United States, and did some recording with Belafonte in the 60's. She performed at President Kennedy's birthday party at Madison Square Garden. Makeba incorporated the percussive sounds of her native Xhosa language into her music. Some of her better known recordings in the 60's included Westwinds, Pata Pata, and Qogothwane (a.k.a. The Click Song). Makeba sang pop songs that were influenced by jazz, and many of her native Xhosa songs; along with her charming personality and pleasing smile, she became a crowd-pleaser and toured widely.
The fine singer developed a large following worldwide, and with her prominent opposition to South Africa's ongoing apartheid policies, she became a symbol of liberation. In 1964 she addressed the UN General Assembly regarding the issue. Also that year, she married for the second time, to Hugh Masekela. The marriage lasted until 1966, and then the following year, her song Pata Pata became a huge hit. It rose to number twelve in the United States and served to increase her following there. In 1968 Makeba married for the third time, to black activist Stokely Carmichael. By this time Hugh Masekela had become a bandleader and rose to prominence with an instrumental recording of Grazing In The Grass, which was a number one pop song that year.
Makeba's marriage to the controversial Stokely Carmichael, combined with her sometimes controversial political positions, caused the loss of some recording contracts and tour dates, but she was undaunted. She moved to Guinea with Carmichael in 1969. She continued to tour and performed for heads of state, garnering a number of awards along the way. Miriam survived cancer and eleven automobile accidents. Caring little for the fancy cars and high living favored by her husband, she and Carmichael were divorced in 1978.
For many years Makeba filled concert halls in various parts of the world, and it seemed that the only place that she was not welcome was in her native South Afica, as a result of her stance on apartheid. Her records were banned there. She was very gratified to hear from a group of young white South Africans who told her that they look forward to her return to her native country some day. She continued recording throughout the 70's and eventually her daughter Bongi became a recording artist also, before Bongi passed away in 1985. At the invitation of Nelson Mandela, Miriam finally made her return to South Africa in 1990. She continued recording and touring into the twenty-first century.
A legend in her native South Africa, Miriam Makeba suffered a heart attack while performing on stage in Italy and passed away on the following day, November 10, 2008. Although she lived a life filled with a variety of experiences in the recording industry and television and movies, and as a political activist, to many in the United States Miriam Makeba is remembered as a one-shot artist for her 1967 hit Pata Pata.
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