Saturday, May 14, 2011

Celebrating Mothers of African Song

Celebrating mothers of African song

Tuesday, 10 May 2011 20:10
Zimbabwe Herald
Stella Chiweshe

We celebrate the role of mothers everyday, but every second Sunday of May is a special day set aside to honour them.

Today, I would like to honour mothers of African music, women who have taken the music of Africa to the world among them; Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa), Dorothy Masuka, Cesaria Evora, Bibi Kidude, Stella Chiweshe, Letta Mbulu, Angelique Kidjo and the Wassoulou Sounds.

The Mothers of African music paved the way for many young musicians and inspired many young women who were to follow in their footsteps. In an interview with a young urban grooves musician Tambudzai Hwaramba in 2007, she said that one of her idols is Cesaria Evora.

Mama Africa introduced the concept of world music and it was confirmed when she was awarded the Polar Music Prize in 2002.

" . . . Miriam Makeba embodied the concept of world music long before the term even existed on the musical map. The presence of Miriam Makeba on the global music scene light candles in the darkness and brings the hope of a better world."

In the 1960s she was the first artist from Africa to popularise African music in the US and around the world.

She popularised the click songs, Qongqothswane. A new language was introduced to the world through song - the click sounds.

From the time of her debut in New York at the Village Vanguard, her fame and reputation grew. She released many of her most famous hits in the United States, including "The Click Song" ("Qongqothwane" in Xhosa), and "Malaika".

Time magazine called her the "most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years." Despite her success that made her a star in the US, she wore no makeup and refused to curl her hair for shows, a style that was internationally acclaimed as the "Afro look".

In 1967, the single for "Pata Pata" was released in the US and became a worldwide hit. The song was first recorded in 1956. The song "Pata Pata" was written by Dorothy Masuka her friend and it became her signature song and eventually her last on stage before she died in Italy on 9 November 2008.

Her publicist notes that Makeba had suffered "severe arthritis" for some time.

From 25 to 27 2009, a tribute show to Makeba entitled "Hommage à Miriam Makeba" and curated by Grammy Award winning Beninoise singer-song-writer and activist Angelique Kidjo for the Festival d'Ile de France, was held at the Cirque in Paris. The same show but with the English title of "Mama Africa: Celebrating Miriam Makeba" was held at the Barbican in London on 21 November 2009.

Her professional career began in the 1950s when she featured in the South African jazz group the Manhattan Brothers, and appeared for the first time on a poster. She left the Manhattan Brothers to record with her all-woman group, The Skylarks, singing a blend of jazz and traditional melodies of South Africa.

Her break came in 1959 when she had a short guest appearance in "Come Back". She made her US debut on the first of November 1959, on The Steve Allen Show.

She recorded and toured with Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon and Hugh Masekela.

She actively campaigned against the SA system of apartheid. As a result the SA government revoked her citizenship and right of return. Wikipedia says Dorothy Masuka who was a friend of Miriam Makeba and Miriam's idol has also done her part in taking the music of Africa to the world. Masuka now based in Johannesburg was in Harare recently where she was honoured by the Harare Jazz Festival for the role she has played in Township Jazz Music.

Masuka is a celebrated female musician of unique experience and maturity, having been in the music scene for 50 years. She began singing professionally in South Africa, where she went to school. Dorothy became popular as a jazz singer in Sophiatown, where she staged shows with the likes of Dolly Rathebe, Makeba and maestro Kippie Moeketsi.

The Harlem Swingsters teamed up with Masuka and toured Cape Town on a series of musical shows lasting seven months.

Masuka's popular tune was; "Hamba Nontsokolo", which has since become an all-time household hit.

The tune was recorded in SA by Trutone and became a popular single during the 50s. Other numbers were "Imali Yami Iphelele Eshabhini", "Unolishwa" and "Isono Sami", which were recorded by Troubador in South Africa.

Back home in Zimbabwe, Dorothy Masuka performed with major musical groups of the 50s; the Cool Four, Golden Rhythm Crooners, City Quads, De Black Evening Follies, August Musarurwa, as well as the Gay Gaeties.
She taught the latter group on the finer points of vocal production and stage performance. Dorothy featured in the "Ready Steady Go Show", produced by UK's Independent Television. It was a crowning moment for her, since only big names appeared on this show: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dotty West.

Those were the times. One of Dorothy Masuka's spectacular moments was when she sang at the General Election Campaign, at a fully packed London Wembley Stadium. The event was momentous; it was aired on live television.

Masuka gave shows in Malawi in 1961, on behalf of the Malawi Congress Party. Eventually she became popular throughout Malawi, where she later formed a trio with two local girls; Helen Kapesi and Matilda Bandawe.

When Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980, Dorothy returned home, still with a feeling that her musical dream had not been fulfiled. She decided to settle in Johannesburg, to revive her musical career. For her, this is where it all began. She gave a sterling show at the recently held Harare Jazz Festival.

Letta Mbulu has also taken Africa to the world and she brought in a new sound which identified with her and became very popular particularly in the 70s.

She was born on August 23, 1942 in Soweto,South Africa.

We used to sing along to her songs; "I won't weep no more", "I will never be the same", "Love is in the air".

Her music was appreciated all over the world and many of her songs went on top of the charts. According to, "South African singer Letta Mbulu possesses one of the finest voices the world of song has ever known.

Like all great singers, her voice emanates a beautiful sound that radiates and resonates from deep within, brimming with a joy of life and more often than not inspiring the spirit of hope and happiness. Its musical like too few voices ever are. It attains grace through pure passion. And it's one of the most pleasurable sounds ever heard."

Another fascinating mother of Africa music is Cesaria Evora. Born in 1941 in Mindelo, Cape Verde, she rocked to world fame at the age of 45, although she had started her musical career when she was 16. By age 20, Evora had achieved a measure of fame at her local radio station.

A few tapes of her performances at the station made their way to Holland and Portugal in the 1960s and were recorded. Despite this exposure, Evora never left Cape Verde for many years, and she stopped singing in the 1970s.

"There was no real progress," she acknowledged in Pulse! "I wasn't making any money out of it, so I just stopped."

Evora came out of retirement in 1985, when she went to Portugal and recorded two songs for a women's music anthology at the request of a Cape Verde women's organisation. Her big break came in the 1980s when she met Jose da Silva, a Frenchman originally from Cape Verde who became entranced with her singing.

Commonly called "the barefoot diva" because she often performed on stage without shoes, Evora is the world's reigning interpreter of a mournful genre of blues music known as morna. Morna is based on the Portuguese fado and features bluesy vocals set against a background of acoustic guitars, fiddles, accordion and cavaquinho, which is a small, four-string guitar.

"For years, the master of the morna has been Cesaria Evora, a Cape Verdean with a rich alto voice who has been accurately described as a cross between Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday," wrote Geoffrey Himes in the Washington Post Evora lives with her mother and her children.

She vowed never to live with a man again after her third divorce, according to Neil Strauss in the New York Times.

"I am married to my mother (with whom she still lives), my children (a 35-year-old son and a 27-year-old daughter), and their two children," Evora said in Rhythm Music.

Stella Chiweshe rose to popularity as the Queen of mbira and is internationally known for her singing and playing of the mbira.

Chiweshe has performed numerous times in Germany and has also participated in the WOMAD festival (1994 in the United States, 1995 in Australia, and 2006 in Spain). In 2004 she toured England with her daughter.

Angelique Kidjo who is the youngest of the musicians I have mentioned here, Angelique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo, commonly known as Angelique Kidjo is a Grammy Award winning Bebinoise singer-songwriter and activist, noted for her diverse musical influences and creative music videos.

Time Magazine has called her "Africa's premier diva". The BBC has included Angelique in its list of the continent's 50 most iconic figures and The Guardian has listed her as one of their Top 100 most inspiring women in the world.

Kidjo was born in Contonou, Benin. Her father is from the Fon people of Ouidah and her mother from the Yoruba people. She grew up listening to Beninese traditional music, Miriam Makeba, James Brown, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and Santana. By the time she was six, Kidjo was performing with her mother's theatre troupe, giving her an early appreciation for traditional music and dance.

She has been a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador since 2002. With Unicef, she has travelled to many countries in Africa. Reports on her visits can be found on the Unicef site: Benin, Senegal, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Syria, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Haiti.

According to Wikipedia, the oldest surviving woman popular musician in Africa is Bibi Kidude who is believed to be in her 90s.

Fatuma binti Bakara (aka Bi Kidude) is a Zanzibari Taarabsinger. She is considered the undisputed queen of Taarab and Unyango music. Bi Kidude was born in the village of Mfagimaringo. She was the daughter of a coconut seller in colonial Zanzibar.

Bi Kidude's exact date of birth is unknown, much of her life story is uncorroborated, giving her an almost mythical status.

As a child, she was singled out for her fine voice and, in the 1920s, sang locally with popular cultural troupes, combining an understanding of music with an equally important initiation into traditional medicine.

At age 13, after a forced marriage she fled Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania. Bi Kidude toured mainland East Africa with a Taarab ensemble, visiting the major coastal towns and inland as far west as Lake Victoria and Tanganyika.

She walked the length and the breadth of the country barefoot in the early 1930s fleeing another unhappy marriage.

In the 1930s she ended up in Dar es Salaam where she sang with Egyptian Taarab group for many years. In the 1940s she returned to Zanzibar where she acquired a small mud hut to be her home.

She is known for her role in the Unyago movement which prepares young Swahili women for their transition through puberty. She is one of the experts of this ancient ritual, performed only to teenage girls, while lecturing against the dangers of sexual abuse and oppression. In 2005 Bi Kidude received the prestigious WOMEX award for her outstanding contribution to music and culture in Zanzibar.

To all mothers out there we salute you! Let me take this opportunity to thank my mother (late) who encouraged me to look at music in its broader sense and not only the stage and she introduced me to the world of journalism, MaMthembo, ngiyabonga, thank you.
We thank you mothers and we love you!

Joyce Jenje Makwenda is a researcher, archivist, author, producer and freelance journalist. She can be contacted on:

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