Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Miriam Makeba 1932-2008

My first introduction to African music was at Loyola University in 1962. I had an English professor who was queer for the Missa Luba (wiki) which is the Catholic Mass sung by a Congolese choir. He'd play it for us in English 101. Trust me, I liked it a lot better than that other crap he shoveled at us, none of which I remember!

A few years later, along came Ms. Makeba. She's been in and out of my musical and political consciousness ever since, but the enjoyment of African music and its derivatives has endured.


Miriam Makeba, the South African singer who for more than half a century brought the intricate rhythms of her native land to millions of listeners around the world and whose role as a spokeswoman against apartheid subjected her to 31 years of exile, died early Monday after a concert in Italy. She was 76.

"Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years," former South African leader Nelson Mandela said in a statement issued by his foundation. Citing her nickname, "Mama Africa," he added: "She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours."

Makeba captivated audiences with a voice perfectly suited to the polyrhythmic chant-songs of African music, combining the clarity of a Joan Baez with the throaty authority of a Sarah Vaughan. Her fame in the U.S. peaked with the 1967 release of the single “Pata Pata,” an upbeat dance tune that remained her best-known number to the end of her life. The song became the first top-20 U.S. single by an African artist.

By then she had already won international fame with a novelty number known familiarly as “The Click Song,” for the way it incorporated the distinctive "click" sound of her native Xhosa tongue.

In the 1980s she performed with Paul Simon on his “Graceland” tour, which gave many South African performers international exposure. She also appeared with Simon in 1992, when his tour of South Africa became the target of protesters who contended it was premature, given that the hand-over to black rule had not yet become official.

"I'm not a politician; I am a singer," she said. "Long ago, they said, 'That one, she sings politics.' I don't sing politics; I merely sing the truth."

That's what made her so dangerous.

In Graceland, which I wore out multiple cassettes of, maybe his only flash of musical brilliance since breaking up with the kid with the funny hair, Mr. Simon introduced a new generation of Americans to African rhythms, which perhaps led to a little awareness of the most important continent on the planet. That's why I chose this one:

Miriam Makeba & Paul Simon - Under African Skies

Goodbye to a great singer and Freedom Fighter.

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