An Interview with Miriam Makeba
A Conversation With
by Struan Douglas
This month one of the great women, songstresses and mothers of Africa – Miriam Makeba releases her first album in many years – Homelands.
Like a snake evoking the passion of the ancestors, like a spiritual guru possessed with the beauty of her own voice – the launch begins with the dramatic and rhythmical breathing ‘ha ha haa – shhh ha’ – those subtle sounds that portray such a vivid expression to the depth and meaning of African culture, those wild sounds that represent the anger and beauty of Mama Africa in the seventies.
But, time has moved on and so too has Miriam. Where Homelands may have lost that raw and emotive imagery, or that fresh African articulation, it has gained a universal sound – a sound that Miriam through a life of change learning and experience has incorporated, and a sound that may appeal to a far greater audience.
“You find a strand of love in this album – love for ones country in Masekane, love for ones country in Homeland – how I miss my home how happy I am to be back,” she sings. “Love for ones continent for the song Africa is where it lies, love for ones great grandson in the song Lindelani and in the song In Time – I feel like I am talking about myself. “In time you get older, in time you get married, I never once change my mind about the things I wanted in my life. I’ve been through changes like everybody else – my heart has been broken, but now the light shines on, the wounded heart will heal in time – god always answers ones prayer no matter how hard you will fall,” she sings in a beautifully sincere and quietly expressive tone. A tone that takes her mind rushing back into the nostalgia of a life lived fast, free and courageously – a life that suffered all the frustrations and heartbreaks and took on much responsibility, importance and influence in raising awareness for what was essentially right.
In 1958 Miriam contributed two songs to the anti-apartheid film ‘Come Back Africa’. Later that decade she travelled abroad with the famous and fabulous King Kong opera and then to the awards ceremony at the Venice film festival. When she arrived at the airport to come back home, her citizenship had been revoked, and she had become an exile.
What was a major disappointment and inconvenience quickly turned into the formative years of her career – as she landed amongst many amazing and influential people. In ’62 she performed at JFK’s birthday on the same bill as Marilyn Monroe, in ’65 she won a Grammy Award for ‘An evening with Harry Belafonte’ and in ’67 Pata Pata became a top 10 world-wide hit.
Yet, throughout this blossoming fame and fortune – it wasn’t who Miriam Makeba was – as she writes in her autobiography – “my life, my career, every song I sing and every appearance I make, are bound up with my people.”
In ’63 she approached the UN suggesting they impose heavy sanctions on Pretoria, she approached them again in ’70 and again in the eighties but to no immediate avail, instead her records were heavily banned in South Africa. And as a result the music developed a strong symbolism and through underground means like Radio Freedom and record sales they found a strong audience. Caught listening to this or caught listening to any such music was a jail sentence and hence even more people were united in the struggle merely through listening to these records.
After her marriage to American Black Panther Stokey Carmichael in the mid-sixties, America presented a very racist side too – so they left and went to Guinea where Miriam enjoyed honouree citizenship from president Sekou Toure, and continued a very active life of performing all over the world.
“There was one leader that told me – you should never refuse to go any where in Africa because when you sing your song, you sing to people all people and maybe you can change a lot of peoples way of thinking – just by your song. When you are invited, go and sing. So I have been to many many different countries – in fact there are only six countries I have never been to.”
She left Guinea in ’86 after the death of her daughter. That same year she was awarded the Dag Hammarskild peace prize and the following year participated in the controversial Graceland Tour and published her autobiography – Makeba: My Story. Then in 1991 after 31 years abroad she, with the other exiles, returned.
“I had mixed feelings – I was happy I was sad, I didn’t know what to expect. I usually sleep on the plane but I never slept – I was scared – it was a long time. But, as soon as I got out of the airport and saw all of the people who were there, all the artists and my family – I felt quite at home. I just jumped into the rhythm right there. It was like I never left.”
“I always say I was away physically but mentally and otherwise I have always been home. I never forgot the languages – I could just still picture home the whole time.”
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