- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008


She died just how she wanted to - singing on stage for a good cause. And her songs wafted out of taxis and radios, as fellow Africans struggled with their grief at her passing.

Miriam Makeba, the “Mama Africa” whose sultry voice gave South Africans hope when the country was gripped by apartheid, died early Monday of a heart attack after collapsing on stage in Italy. She was 76.

In her dazzling career, Mrs. Makeba performed with musical legends from around the world - jazz maestros Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon - and sang for world leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela.

“Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us,” Mr. Mandela said in a statement.

Mrs. Makeba collapsed after singing one of her most famous hits “Pata Pata,” her family said. Her grandson, Nelson Lumumba Lee, was with her as well as her longtime friend, Italian promoter Roberto Meglioli.

She died at the Pineta Grande clinic in Castel Volturno, near Naples, after singing at a concert in solidarity with six immigrants from Ghana who were fatally shot in September in the town.

The death of “Mama Africa” sent shock waves through South Africa, where callers flooded radio stations with their recollections. In Guinea, where Mrs. Makeba lived most of her decades in exile, radio and television stations played mournful music and tributes to their adopted icon.

The first African to win a Grammy award, Mrs. Makeba started singing in Sophiatown, a cosmopolitan neighborhood of Johannesburg that was a cultural hot spot in the 1950s before its black residents were forcibly removed by the apartheid government.

She then teamed up with South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela - later her first husband - and her rise to international prominence started in 1959 when she starred in the anti-apartheid documentary “Come Back, Africa.”

When she tried to fly home for her mother’s funeral the following year, she discovered her passport had been revoked.

In 1963, Mrs. Makeba appeared before the U.N. Special Committee Against Apartheid to call for an international boycott of South Africa. The white-led South African government responded by banning her records.

Mrs. Makeba received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording in 1966 together with Mr. Belafonte for “An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba.” Thanks to her close relationship with Mr. Belafonte, she received star status in the United States and performed for President Kennedy at his birthday party in 1962.

After three decades abroad, Mrs. Makeba was invited back to South Africa by Mr. Mandela shortly after his release from prison in 1990 as white racist rule crumbled.

“It was like a revival,” she said about going home. “My music having been banned for so long, that people still felt the same way about me was too much for me. I just went home and I cried.”

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