Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mama Africa: A Tribute to Excellence

Mama Africa: Tribute to excellence

By Tendai Hildegarde Manzvanzvike
Zimbabwe Herald

THE remains of Africa’s most remarkable lady of song-cum-political and social activism of the 20th century, Miriam "Mama Africa" Makeba were cremated last weekend in South Africa at a state assisted funeral.

Makeba passed away on November 9 2008 in Italy where she was performing at a benefit concert against the infamous Italian Mafia.

The irony is that it was in Italy where the world first saw her when she got her first film award in 1959 at the Venice International Film Festival.

Makeba lived up to the meaning of her name, which in Hebrew means "Beloved" and the outpouring of grief and the status she was accorded by the South African Government and the ANC bore testimony to this.

When Ambuya Miriam Mlambo passed on July 6 2008, I began my obituary with the lyrics from Oliver Mtukudzi’s hit song and death cry, "Mabasa".

I wanted to do the same for her namesake Miriam Makeba, a coincidence that I discovered midway through my writing.

Both were great women and artists, who departed to the netherworld while still actively doing what they loved best: entertaining and giving selflessly to worthy causes.

Hardworking and never knowing what retirement meant are marks and challenges they leave for today’s women in industries that were originally male dominated. Theirs is a lasting legacy.

To be called "Miriam" is a mark of greatness in itself. They followed to the letter what the Biblical Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s eldest sister did.

After crossing the Red Sea the Bible says that "She took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang for them."

There are personalities one encounters in one’s lifetime who leave a lasting impression on you.

That is the case with "Mama Africa" and me.

I had had many encounters with her through her songs and because she exuded such aura in my younger days, I read as much as I could about her.

Her visit to Harare in March 1988 to perform at the Zimbabwe Child Survival and Development Foundation benefit concert hosted by the late First Lady Amai Sally Mugabe was truly unforgettable.

It was a memorable concert for a worthy cause, which was also graced by renowned artists like Unicef Goodwill Ambassador Harry Belafonte, South African musician PJ Powers and others.

The latter was later banned from South Africa’s airwaves for a year by the apartheid regime for her performance at this concert. Zimbabwe was just eight years old and was opening its doors to the world by bringing together such renowned artistes.

That Saturday evening when Makeba got on stage dressed in a flowing robe, her trademark natural, short hair and the beaded head band, the packed HICC could not contain itself. She was stylish, graceful and chic, and symbolised African beauty.

The performance was classic and was a combination of elegance and simplicity.

For a person who rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty in showbiz (Sidney Poitier, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillspie, Harry Belafonte etc), captains of industry and Africa’s founding fathers, Miriam remained Miriam.

It was not difficult to see that "Mama Africa" had become an international icon whose music appealed to all ages and nationalities — a unique quality that can only be achieved through music and its universal language.

It was also easy to realise what the stage as a personal space meant for Makeba.

While entertaining, she also used it as a platform to raise international consciousness, through song and dance, about the evils of the apartheid system that had not only banished her from her homeland, but had even denied her the right to perform that last mark of respect — burying her own mother.

Through music, Makeba used her popularity to speak to the most powerful figures in an Africa that was fighting colonialism.

In a 2000 interview with the BBC World Services, she recounted the excitement that greeted the signing of the Organisation of African Union charter, an event where she also gave a performance before Heads of State and Government and leaders of various liberation movements.

Singing came naturally to her.

She said that she was born in a home of musicians, with her mother as a sangoma where song and dance were part of the trade.

That evening in 1988 in Harare, Makeba took the audience down memory lane singing songs that made her get the rare and passionate name "Mama Africa". It seemed a large proportion of the audience had been heavily involved in activism against the Smith regime, and Makeba’s music had become a symbol of identity and consciousness.

They sang along with her.

Never mind that they could not do the clicks when she sang the famous "Click Song", they still sang along. It was also a performance that spoke volumes about her stagecraft. She had performed all over the world but never at this scale in her native South Africa because of the apartheid regime.

It reminds me of her sister in song, Dorothy Masuka silently singing to herself: "Taigara musango senherera". (We were banished like strangers.)

It is fitting that Makeba passed on while doing what she loved most and knew best: entertaining people for a worthy cause at the ripe age of seventy-six. Maybe this is why it had to be Italy, for if she had died in South Africa, she would not have brought together the kind of audience that had walked with her that long journey of music and activism.

South Africans had been denied the opportunity to see their daughter rise to stardom, and had to be contended with the fact that she belonged to everybody. Africa’s lady of song collapsed and died soon after performing one of her most well known hit songs, "Pata Pata".

According to her guitarist Mandla Zikalala, she "thanked the audience, blew kisses at them with a radiant smile and left the stage. As she went past me, she put the mic on the drum.

As she went down the stairs, she fell. It was the first time she left alone". I told myself that she left alone because she was homebound, and death is that unique trip where no one, irrespective of his or her station in life requires a companion.

Since leaving South Africa in 1959, and making history when "Pata Pata" entered the American Top Ten charts, she became Africa’s Ambassador to the world, at a time when less than five African countries had achieved independence. Her entry on the American stage was also timely since the civil rights movement there was gathering momentum.

In her biography Makeba says, "I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots, . . . Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realising."

However, that last concert on European soil was poignant. It was as if Miriam went to announce in that powerful voice of hers that there is a new world order as evidenced by the ascendance of Barack Obama to the US presidency. She worked with musical greats like Zimbabwean-born Dorothy Masuka, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Harry Belafonte and Dizzy Gillispie. She could sing in Zulu, Xhosa, English, French, Portuguese and others.

However, when a great person like Makeba passes on we do not mourn, rather, we celebrate the achievements of their full life, a life dedicated to making the world a better place through song and dance. We do not mourn for we know that we could not have her forever.

She belongs to another world now.

However, we celebrate having her for 76 years, we celebrate the talent and excellence she embodied. We celebrate the beautiful black African woman who remained true to her identity up to the very end and what we remember now is the regal and stately look with that headgear. We celebrate her simplicity and sometimes naïve approach to complex issues.

After marrying the controversial Stokely Carmichael, she faced fierce criticism, which almost ended her career.

However, she simplistically explained it away saying that she had chosen a husband and not his politics. She also courted controversy when she moved to the newly independent West African State of Guinea, which was under the leadership of Sekou Toure.

The West labelled Toure a dictator, and Makeba defended her move as purely professional, and a mark of appreciation of Guinea’s artistic industry.

But the highlight was when she said she did not know if Toure was a dictator or not, and wondered at the double standards since the West had never called the apartheid rulers in South Africa dictators.

It is human nature that we take it for granted that no matter where we are, home is always best.

Not with Makeba.

Her last album, "Homeland", is a tribute to a place called home and what it really means to be away from and to be at home.

Despite the glamour and beauty of showbiz she told of the many moments when she terribly missed home, and of the dark days when she felt so lonely

Makeba is an epitome of African beauty, resilience and determination who carved a niche for today’s woman in our deeply patriarchal society.

She bestowed dignity on us.

Makeba’s life was also a life of losses and gains: initially losing her home, mother, then daughter Bongi, and also losing spouses.

One cannot help but feel that the stage remained the sole space where she had a sense of security. However, even the stage had its limitations.

It betrayed her and she collapsed on stage and made that final good bye moments later. But since we celebrate her life, all what matters now is that Makeba has gone to our eternal home.

So I say lala kuhle Mama Afrique!

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