Aging Gracefully

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Fri Apr 19 08:15:15 MDT 2002

Aging Gracefully
Legendary singer, diplomat turns 70
By James Hall

Miriam Makeba, the legendary South African singer whose zest for life infuses her songs and makes them seem eternally youthful, turned 70 last month, a fact that seems to astound her.

"Where has the time gone?" she wondered.

Where the past two years have gone - at least in part - has been to diplomatic service.

President Thabo Mbeki made Makeba South Africa's cultural ambassador in 2000. This was a reward for her work in exile to overcome the apartheid regime that once oppressed her native land, and in recognition of the favorable image she has given of South Africa for over five decades through her music.

"I am not a diplomat, I am a singer," she told the press at the time of her appointment. "But sometimes it is the artists who can speak to all the people through their art."

Her official duties are wedged between an ongoing schedule of concert tours, recording sessions, and television commercials.

For example, in Europe, visits to diplomatic missions, cultural events and goodwill appearances will revolve around an upcoming performance Makeba is scheduled to give.

"Time has been funny to me," Makeba said as her birthday approached. "I was an 'old' woman in terms of my Xhosa tribal culture when I was 36.

When I became a grandmother for the first time, my city friends asked me, 'Why do you let your daughter's children call you 'granny'? It makes you sound old!' I told them, 'But I am their granny!' But even today I feel young, and the make-up technicians keep me looking youthful!" she laughed.

Makeba's biography is a litany of accomplishments interspersed with tragedy. Born in 1932 in rural South Africa, her singing talents were discovered early, and as a teenager she was lead singer with the Manhattan Brothers, the top pop group in South Africa in the 1950s.

A lead role in a hit musical and an appearance in a South African film that received international distribution brought her an invitation to sing in Britain. It was there that Harry Belafonte, the American singing star, heard Makeba perform her first international hit, "Back of the Moon," and invited her to tour with him in the United States.

In America, where daughter Bongi went to live with her, Makeba garnered further fame: a Grammy Award for an album with Belafonte, and an opportunity to address a United Nations special committee on apartheid.

That was 1963, and when the soft-spoken singer condemned Pretoria's racist regime and called for international sanctions on South Africa to end apartheid, her home nation invalidated her passport.

She began a 28-year exile, not returning to South Africa until 1991, when Nelson Mandela had been released from 27 years in prison and the transition to democracy was underway.

1963 was also the year she was diagnosed with cancer, which was conquered through extensive surgery. She has been in two severe car crashes, and a passenger aircraft crash in Guinea, where she lived from 1968 until she repatriated to South Africa.

When her daughter Bongi died in Guinea, one of the condolence notes Makeba received was from another anti-apartheid activist, Winnie Mandela.

In 1990, she and Makeba toured the United States in what was to prove Makeba's first taste of diplomatic work.

In concert, Makeba often performs with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, to whom she was married for two years in the sixties. "Brother Hugh was my third husband," she recalls.

"We were friends who should have remained friends, so after things did not work out as man and wife we went back to being friends again."

Makeba's first husband, a South African police officer who impregnated her when she was 17, physically abused her and her baby, and she left him. But the experience gave her empathy for other victims of abuse, a problem she raises on her travels and diplomatic missions.

Her second husband was a popular South African Indian singer, but the union occurred at a time of strict racial segregation, and the pressures on the couple from family and society proved insurmountable.

Following Masekela, whom she wed in New York, she married the late African American black power activist Stokeley Carmichael, who became "persona non grata" in the United States.

Makeba left the States with him and settled in Africa. Carmichael's infidelity ended that union after five years. Subsequently, Makeba met her current husband, a Guinean airline executive to whom she is still married.

When the film the young Makeba acted in was screened at Cannes, Makeba earned the name "Mama Africa." "I used to not like that name, because it made me sound so old, and big!" she tells audiences with a smile. "But now that I am old, and have grown round, I suppose I should accept the honor gracefully. I am certainly grateful, because Africa is my wonderful home."

Her grandson Lumumba produces her records incorporating the latest technical and musical innovations. She frequently records with popular young singing stars who are musically indebted to her.

At 70, Miriam Makeba is one of the longest continuously performing international stars.


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