Miriam was born in Johannesburg. As a young girl of thirteen, she entered a talent show at a missionary school and walked off with the first prize. She was often invited to sing at weddings, and her popularity grew in leaps and bounds as more and more people became dazzled by her talent. In 1952 she was chosen to sing for The Manhattan Brothers and toured South Africa with them. As early as 1956, she wrote and released the song "Pata Pata".
She received invitations to visit Europe and America, where she came to the attention of Harry Belafonte and Steve Allen and was capitulated to stardom. 1959 saw her becoming the first South African to win a Grammy award for the album 'An Evening with Harry Belafonte & Miriam Makeba'.
Miriam became an exile in 1960 when South Africa banned her from returning to her birth country - she was deemed to be too dangerous and revolutionary - this was after she had appeared in an anti-apartheid documentary, entitled "Come Back Africa", and this upset the then white apartheid government of South Africa. Miriam only returned to South Africa thirty years later.
In 1967, more than ten years after she wrote the song, "Pata Pata" was released in the United States and became a hit worldwide. It has since been re-recorded by numerous international artists. Miriam was a darling of the American public, but they turned against her when she married the radical black activist, Stokely Carmichael, in 1968. Once again, she was at the receiving end of a dissatisfied and disgruntled country. Although the United States never banned her, her US concerts and recording contracts were suddenly cancelled.
She moved back to Africa, this time to Guinea where she was welcomed with open arms. Miriam continued to record songs and toured intensively. She was well respected by the government of Guinea and was asked to address the United Nations General Assembly as a Guinean delegate. She twice addressed the General Assembly, speaking out against the evils of apartheid.
Although always regarding herself as a singer and not as a politician, Miriam's fearless humanitarianism has earned her many International awards, including the 1986 Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize and the UNESCO Grand Prix du Conseil International de la Musique. Makeba is also known for having inspired an enduring fashion in the 60's when the slogan "black is beautiful" was launched:
She was received by such world leaders as Hailé Selassie, Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy and François Mitterrand. She has toured with singers such as Paul Simon, Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela and Dizzy Gillepsie. The ban on her records was lifted in South Africa in 1988 and she returned to her homeland in December 1990. Four years later she started a charity project to raise funds to protect women in South Africa. Her first concert in South Africa (1991) was a huge success and this was a prelude for a world-wide tour which included the USA and Europe.
She has released over thirty albums over the years, and her powerful and distinctive voice retains the clarity and range that enable it to be both forceful as a protest march and as poignant as an African lullaby.
Miriam was MamaAfrica, a lady with a special touch. She has weathered many storms in her life, including several car accidents, a plane crash and even cancer. She remained as active in her latter years as she did as a young girl with stars in her eyes.
On 9 November 2008, she became ill while taking part in a concert being held in Castel Volturno, Italy. Miriam suffered a heart attack after singing her most famous song "Pata Pata", and was rushed to a clinic where doctors were unable to revive her.
Her exceptional personal and artistic achievements were part of the history of the 20th century, and the dramatic elements of her extraordinary life made Miriam Makeba a living legend.
© ZAbra.co.za January 2007