Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Miriam Makeba has a long and dramatic career behind her, both as a singer and human rights campaigner. She was the first vocalist to put African music onto the international map in the 1960s.
She began to sing professionally as far back as 1950 with the Cuban Brothers, and became known across the land with the jazz group Manhattan Brothers, who toured South Africa, the former Rhodesia and Congo up until 1957. She went on to join the female vocal group, Skylarks, and sang on their disk. In 1959 Miriam Makeba took on the female lead in the musical “King Kong”, about a boxer who kills his sweetheart and later dies in prison. The musical, publicised as a “jazz opera”, was a big success in South Africa. To avoid the racist apartheid laws that divided the public, the musical was often performed in universities. That year an American film director, Lionel Togosin, made a documentary film from South Africa on which Miriam Makeba collaborated, and wanted her to present the film at the Venice Festival. Makeba accepted the job and got into hot water with the South African authorities that railed against the negative attention they received through the presentation of the film. While in Italy, Miriam Makeba decided not to return to South Africa where she got little or nothing in terms of payment for her performances. This resulted in the South African government revoking her passport and denying her the possibility of ever returning to her homeland. Miriam took up refuge in London after the festival and met Harry Belafonte, who helped her to emigrate to the USA. There she built up her career again. She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others would follow her example.
In America Miriam Makeba had several hits on the 1960s, among them “Pata Pata”, “The Clique Song”, and the Tanzanian “Malaika”, remaining an active opponent of the apartheid regime in her own country. Also, in the USA there was a civil rights movement growing in the 1960s. Miriam Makeba was for some years married to trumpet player and colleague Hugh Masekela, but split from him and in 1968 wed a leader of the black power movement, Stokely Carmichael. This was too much for some of her conservative, white audiences in the USA and she was in trouble with the American authorities. She found support in Nina Simone and others, yet went into exile in Guinea, Africa. She managed to find work outside the USA, and toured Europe, South America and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. During those years she often appeared at jazz festivals such as the Montreux and Berlin. In 1987 she participated in Paul Simon’s Graceland project, defending it even though it officially went against the cultural boycott of South Africa.
Miriam Makeba is African music’s first and foremost world star. She is a pioneer who played her early songs and blended different styles long before anyone even began to talk about “world music”. Her disk production is spread across many companies all over the world – so far and wide that it’s difficult to get a panoramic view of it. But no collection of African music should be without one or more of Miriam Makeba’s recordings.