Tuesday, 11 November 2008
I knew about Miriam Makeba before I even heard her music.
She was one of those people whose names found their way into my early vocabulary (like 'Marley'). Her image occupied the same place in my young mind as Nkrumah proclaiming Ghana's independence, Martin telling his dream to a sea of Washington spectators or Malcolm looking out of a window, gun in hand.
She was, and will remain, genuinely iconic.
I once thought I was unfamiliar with her music until someone pointed out to me that the 'Malaika' I was familiar with was not Boney M's version, and that 'Pata Pata' - a song as familiar to me as a nursery rhyme - was hers too. I explored her and found out that there were other songs too. It was like rediscovering a childhood friend.
Unlike so many artists today, there was a depth to Makeba. Some deeply inherent cool. She was an interesting person in interesting times. The first African woman to win a Grammy, she warmed up the crowds before Ali's Rumble in the Zairean Jungle, starred in Sarafina! and appeared on the Cosby Show. She was a Harry Belafonte's protege; exiled from Apartheid South Africa; linked at a point to Kwame Nkrumah, then married, first to Hugh Masekela and then to the Black Panther, Stokely Carmichael. The latter association cost her her American music contract and concerts and the couple moved to Sekou Toure's Guinea.
She survived discrimination, divorces, bankruptcy and the death of her daughter, and somehow remained such an image of hope and positivity that she came to embody the image and idea of 'Mama Africa'; a title that became (and remains) hers to keep. It is not for just anybody that Madiba himself comes out to mourn.