Music of survival
Miriam Makeba, who died recently during a concert against organised crime in Italy, used her songs to affirm her oneness with Africa with a powerful sense of hope for freedom and liberty
Anti-apartheid icon: Miriam Makeba at her last concert.
Music with leanings towards a political ideology is born out of a need to intervene in the history of a nation or a people. Bob Marley had stood for peace, love and justice, and for the struggles of the impoverished and the powerless in his music. Bo
b Dylan, on the other hand, wrote against the Vietnam War and stood up for the “the times that [were] a-changin”. And if we were to consider Jazz, it too is a cry embracing the black man’s deepest needs and highest aspirations. Jazz influenced Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring”, Bartok’s “Cantata Profana”, and many elements in the visual art of Picasso and Modgiliani, asserting the violence of dispossession through heart-rending rendition of the seething events of the time. Such art forms move between private loss and public crisis juxtaposing the tragic past and the apocalyptic present enabling people to live in political history.
Like Jazz, the haunting melodies of Miriam Makeba, also known as “Mama Afrika” and “Empress of African Song”, resound with the struggle of the people of South Africa against the dark forces of apartheid, expressing a communal way of life, deeply political through her intervention in matters of slavery and servitude, the plight of women, and the menace of land mines. As she remarked in one of her recent interviews, “One of the things about South African music is that it can express joy and sorrow at the same time. Sometimes people think we are so happy when we are singing because the music has that swaying rhythm. But very often we are saying something painful and tragic in our songs.”
It was the American jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald who had significant influence on the music of this celebrated singer, diplomat and activist, which unlike western music, seeks to lose itself in a personal cry for identity. Makeba’s song “Africa is Where My Heart Lies” says it all and shows how she has stood up for her people’s culture and history. Singing of local and topical events in English and French and often in a number of local South African languages like Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi, Makeba affirms her oneness with Africa with a powerful sense of hope for freedom and liberty. Inevitably, the personal becomes the political.
Her wailing cries describe the desolation of black slaves and the prisoners as rendered in her song “A Piece of Ground”; her musical techniques inevitably illustrate the predicament of her enslaved brethren and her own pain of exile and dislocation, expressing solidarity through the distortions of pitch and flexibilities of rhythm. It is steeped in the African tradition with rhythms that are moody and heavy, a tightly constructed rhetoric that fuses the oral tradition with politics aiming to rouse her fellow-countrymen with a sense of history. The confidence behind Makeba’s music screams of the fundamental human need for due recognition denied to the oppressed.
The sudden death of this South African legend at the age of 76 only a few days ago after an amazing performance at a concert against organised crime held in the southern Italian town of Baia Verde moved Nelson Mandela to remark: “Despite her tremendous sacrifice and the pain she felt to leave behind her beloved family and her country when she went into exile, she continued to make us proud as she used her worldwide fame to focus attention on the abomination of apartheid . . . . She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours.” On hearing of her demise, Alice Walker who once massaged her tired feet said, “She fulfilled her part of the race so brilliantly and sang so much of, you know, what we needed to hear in order to get us to this point of electing Barack Obama.”
The story of Makeba’s life is indeed the story of her music intertwined with racial politics, always “triumphant and worried, wry and angry, naive and knowing” a dynamic symbol of “black pride, resilience and resistance,” defiantly standing up for her race with the boldness that she learnt from years of misery at the hands of her husband or the white masters she laboured for in her teens. Early in life Makeba was fortunate in getting a break on being invited to join the leading South African group, the Manhattan Brothers. When in the late 1950s she was refused entry into her country, Makeba began to tour America with Harry Belafonte and in 1963 gave an angry speech at the United Nations General Assembly against the insensitive regime of apartheid. “In Time” and “Let’s Build One Another” are her favourites especially because, they call upon, in her words, “the people of South Africa to work together to build the nation and create a better future”. Makeba’s marriage to the ‘revolutionary’ and black power activist Stokely Carmichael brought to a close her career in the US where all contracts and further promotion of her songs came to an abrupt halt. There was no other option but to return home to Africa after an exile of 31years. It would be in 1988 that Paul Simon would manage her return to the US and have her perform with South African magicians. In 1986 she received the prestigious Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize.
Timeless and universal
For the last 40 years her music has shown no signs of becoming outdated as is obvious from the celebrations and the global following that she still enjoys. She has the honour of performing before John F. Kennedy, Mitterrand, Castro, Mandela the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as well as joining Sidney Poitier, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis in a number of cultural events. Music for her has always been evocative of the timeless and universal quality of peace and brotherhood, of unity and independence.
A visionary and a revolutionary artist, Makeba became the icon of the anti-apartheid movement. She was the reincarnation of the best of the spirit of Africa, which continues living in her music. In a season of tragic endings art for her had the potential of transforming calamity into celebration, an affirmation of endurance in appalling times. She passed away at the height of international glory with her dreams of a free homeland fully realised and knowing in her heart that Barack Obama’s victory had made her people see, in the words of Alice Walker, “those tomorrows that were so longed for and so sweated for and so believed in and so hoped for”.
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