Three weeks ago, I woke up feeling very edgy and unhappy. All morning, a cloud seemed to cling to my spirit and I couldn't shake it. Then I saw the day's headlines. I understood. Miriam was gone. Miriam Zenzi Makeba died of a heart attack on November 10 after a concert performance outside of Naples, Italy. To her fans she was Mama Africa and the Empress of African Song, an icon of African political activism and the high-flying spirit of African music. To me, she was a comforting , lyrical presence throughout my life.
Miriam Makeba started performing in the 50s but a lot of younger Americans were first introduced to her in the 80s, when she appeared on an episode of the Cosby Show. I had the good fortune of experiencing a live Miriam concert before the Cosby episode and that performance will stay with me for the rest of my life. Her voice was at once overwhelming with a range that swooped from the sky and back, as well as intimate and soothing, scatting and swirling with a rich and melodious tone. She sang in her native Xhosa as well as Zulu, Swahili, English, Portuguese and Yiddish. Miriam truly represented global awareness before the term was even created. Her most famous tunes are "The Click Song" and the rollicking "Pata Pata" but the songs that touched me were the gentle love song "Malaika" and "Mbube," a traditional Zulu song which was adapted by Pete Seeger and popularized by the Tokens as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
During my wedding ceremony, I walked down the aisle to "Malaika." When my daughter was born in a cozy birthing room with low lighting and music, it was Miriam's "Sangoma" that was playing. My daughter came out smiling, with her thumb in her mouth. I'm convinced that being greeted with Miriam's caressing vocals had something to do with this. Whenever I'm feeling excited or introspective, I reach for a CD by Miriam. Her music has provided the soundtrack for most of my life.
A lot has been written about Miriam Makeba over the last three weeks. It's taken me all this time to absorb the cultural loss. As a music critic, I know that Miriam holds a significant place in music history. She was the first African woman to win a Grammy. She performed at Kennedy's famous birthday celebration in 1962. She was the only performer invited by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to sing at the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity in 1963. She also sang at several marches for Martin Luther King Jr. There are few contemporary r&b singers that I've interviewed, from Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, to Les Nubians and Zap Mama, that don't cite Miriam as an influence.
But her impact stretches much further than music. Although she always insisted that she was not a political activist, her very life was a work in political activism. She was exiled from her South Africa home for 30 years because she spoke of the brutality and injustice of apartheid. She never recorded a protest song technically but her refusal to abandon her culture and her attention to traditional African folk singing, supplied enough protest. Her songs were banned in South Africa and she became the voice and the personification, along with Nelson Mandela and Stephen Biko, of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
Fittingly, Miriam's last concert was also an act of political protest. She was performing at a concert in Southern Italy in tribute to six Ghanaian immigrants who had been murdered in the region in September. The mafia is accused of carrying out the killings and the concert was to promote anti-racism and anti-mafia activity. She collapsed after performing her signature "Pata Pata" tune. She died as she lived, protesting injustice and spreading the joy of African music. Miriam Makeba is gone but her spirit lives on.