Mirriam Makeba singing on the Mic.

Tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s Journeys from Johannesburg to Italy

Tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s journeys around the world is a historical moment filled with adventures, beautiful people and  ideologies.  Mama Mirriam Makeba is known for her breathtaking music and for representing South Africa and the African diaspora to the world. Her musical talents take us around the world and lets us into interesting and challenging moments in her world.

Mama Mirriam Makeba takes baby steps

Cartoon of baby learning to walk

I illustrate Mama Mirriam Makeba’s journeys by looking into her early days as a baby. Outside of Johanneburg there was a place called Prosper. A pregnant woman looks down and asks for mercy over her difficult pregnancy. By some mercy or universe timing, a sangoma woman gives birth to a girl and names her Mirriam Makeba.

The family welcomes the newborn baby with excitement. Little did they know that the police would arrest Mama Makeba’s mother for selling traditional home-brewed beer for six months when Mama Makeba was only eighteen days old.

Later on, her father’s death when she was six years old shocks the family and forces her mother to go look for work in Johannesburg. As a result, the Makeba moves to the Transvaal, today known as Gauteng, to find green pastures. But her mother, though, separates from her and stays in Johannesburg. Which resulted in Mama Mirriam Makeba and her other five siblings living with their grandmother in Pretoria.

A move away from the known to the unknown

Girls singing in a school choir

In Pretoria, Mama Mirriam Makeba finds joy and joins a school choir in Kilnerton Training Institute, an all-black Methodist primary school. She amazes her peers and others at school with her melodic voice. It is not surprising because she comes from a music family with a rich history. For instance, her father was a pianist and her mother played various traditional musical instruments.

In tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s journeys, we see her imitating music that her older brother collects. This includes music by legends such as Duke Ellington and Mary Fitzgerald.

Tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba alongside the Manhattan Brothers

Mama Mirriam Makeba singing with the Manhattan Brothers

Likewise, she gains confidence and joins an all-male group called the Cuban Brothers. Her older brother’s music collection and mentorship comes in handy and together they sing covers of American groups. But along the way, when she reaches the age of twenty-one, she spreads her wings and joins another group called the Manhattan Brothers.

In this instance, we encounter her again, bringing changes to this male-dominated group. She becomes the only woman in the group. The group  sing jazz made from a mixture of South African songs and pieces from popular African-American groups. Together, they put together and released a hit song called ‘Laku tshona ilanga’, meaning the sun will set, in 1953. Consequently, she gains popularity and more opportunities start to present themselves.

She grabs opportunities as they come.

Life happens and opportunities knock on her door. The Manhattan Brothers start a tour without her. Then she hears from the grapevine that there’s a new female group around town. Undoubtedly, she finds her new home in the Skylands . And together they mesmerize the listeners with a blend of jazz and African traditional melodies. Thus, the music historian , Rob Allingham, describes the group as ‘trendsetters’ with harmonies that have never been heard before’.

Furthermore, we trace Mama Makeba getting a singing leading role in the Broadway-inspired South African jazz King Kong. It is this singing role that leads us to the new life of Mama Makeba. As such, an independent American filmmaker, Lionel Robinson, offers her a cameo role in his anti-apartheid film called; Come Back, Africa.

Significantly, she makes a short guest appearance where she sings for only a few minutes and disappears. As a result, the cameo makes an enormous impression on viewers. Then, Lionel Robinson organized a visa for her to attend the premier of the film at the twenty-fourth Venice Film Festival in Italy. Her presence has been described as crucial to the film.

Moving to New York

Mirriam Makeba and Steve Allen having a discussion

Unquestionably, the film, ‘Come Back, Africa’  brings her international recognition and she grabs the opportunity with both hands. She travels to London and New York to perform and make a name for herself. While in London, she meets Harry Belafonte, an American musician. Then Harry decides to mentor and help Mama Makeba with her first solo recordings.

After sometime living in England and a failed brief marriage, she decides to move to New York and joins other artists who live in Greenwich Village. Mama Mirriam Makeba’s life is not all bed and roses. While in the US, she faces financial difficulties and decides to babysit around town in the meantime.

In tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s journeys, we come across traces of  her footprints on the Steve Allen Show in Los Angeles. Where she made her US debut album with a television audience of sixty million. In the same fashion, we trace her at the New York Village Vanguard, where she makes another appearance. Here she introduces South African languages such as isiXhosa and isiZulu and also performs a Yiddish folk song. Her audience included, among others, legends such as Miles Davids and Duke Ellington. Consequently, she received positive criticism for her stunning performance.

Tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s Journeys despite all odds

Mirriam Makeba singing joyfully.

Tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s journeys is also about finding out why she was in exile. This brings us to the situation in South Africa where there is political tension. Owing to the political tension in South Africa, Mama Mirriam Makeba learns about her two family members who were killed in the Sharpeville massacre. While digesting the bad news, she also learns that her mother passed away. To add to her wound, Mama Makeba also learns that her passport has been cancelled and therefore she cannot attend the funerals.

Despite the negativity, we see her learning from the pain and growing into a powerful woman . Due to the Sharpeville massacre, she becomes critical of the apartheid and white minority regime. Because of this, she speaks about her pain in the following quotation: “I always wanted to leave home. But I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back.  Maybe, if I knew, I never would’ve left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve known. No one will know the pain of exile until you are in exile”.

Nevertheless,  in 1964, she released her second studio album under a recording deal with RCA Victor. The album is called the World of Mirriam Makeba and backed by Harry Bellafonte’s band. Notably, her music has cross-racial appeal in the US. That is, the white Americans are attracted to her image as an exotic African performer, whereas the black Americans relate their own experience of racial segregation to Makeba’s struggle against apartheid.

Tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s Journeys and the Bigger Circle of Friends

Mirriam Makeba was welcomed into Israel.

Likewise, tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s journeys is coupled with moments of  transformation. We see her acting on Harry Bellafonte’s advice and adding songs from Latin America, Europe, Israel and elsewhere in Africa. As a result, she travels to Europe, Israel and Africa to perform. These advances provide an opportunity to belong in a circle of friends who encourage her despite challenges. During this time, she meets other  Africans exiles, including the world-renowned saxophonist, Hugh Masekela.

Understandably, she makes friends with delegates who sit at the United Nations, and also gets the opportunity to host Tom Mboya, a Kenyan executive. In all of this, we trace her steps in fundraising drives in America for scholarships and performances in Kenya at the benefit show for MauMau orphans.

As it stands, the bonds she forges lead to opportunities and she continues to expand her circle. For instance, president Julius Nyerere, offers her a Tanzanian diplomatic passport after learning she is stateless. Then, a chain of other offers follows, like the invitation to the inaugural conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), in Addis Ababa. Contrary to her statelessness, she ends up owning a string of African passports, such as an Algerian passport.

For  Mirriam Makeba, this is an opportunity to make these leaders aware of the situation in South Africa. For example, during the Cote d’Iviore tour she lent them a copy of the film, Come Back, Africa and also sent the copy to Guinea.

The US turns against Mama Mirriam Makeba

Mirriam Makeba in talking with her husband Stokely Carmiichael.

In the meantime, while travelling from the US to Africa, she meets Stokely Carmichael, the Tridadian-American activist, student leader and prominent figure in the Black-Panther Party. They get into a relationship and get married in March 1968.

Owing to the new developments in her life, Conservatives in the US see her as a threat and portray her image as that of a militant and an extremist. This portrayal affects her fanbase and she looses her white followers. Moreover, organisers cancel her concerts and the press stops to cover her. Furthermore, the government takes interest in her activities, thus, resulting in the CIA following her movements. As with other people who pose a threat to the US, Mama Makeba was not different. While travelling in the  Bahamas with her husband, Stokely Carmichael, she learned she could no longer return to the US.

Mirriam Makeba’s Resistance Against the US

Mirriam Makeba holding a microphone and using it to as a tool to revolutionary principles.

Even so, she finds a home in Guinea and she starts to write critical music directed at the US government’s racial policies. She records and sings songs such as; “Lumumba”, referring to Patrice Lumumba, the Congo Prime Minister who was assassinated. And also makes mention of Malcolm X in her songs. Her popularity increases and she travels and performs in countries such as Kenya,  Angola, Zambia, Tanganyika, and Mozambique. Not forgetting to mention Europe and Asia as her other adventures.

Undoubtedly, with her appearances  becoming popular around the world,  especially in Africa. We see African leaders embraving her. For example, in 1963 she was an official delegate for Guinea. In addition to the list of her successes, Mama Makeba also  performs alongside well-known African and American musicians at the Zaire74 festival . Not only that, but she also became the diplomat for Ghana. It must be noted that it was during this time that she accepted the title ‘ Mama’,  meaning mother.

The following quote describes her place and feelings about inequalities. “I look at an ant and see myself as a native South African, endowed by nature with strength much greater than my size. So that I can cope with the weight of racism that crushes my spirit. I look at the bird and see myself. As a native South African,  soaring above the injustices of apartheid on the wings of pride. The pride of a beautiful people”.

The Graceland Tour

Mirriam Makeba and Paul Simon greeting audiences at the concert held in Ellis Park.

In other news with regards to tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s journeys, she goes through a lot. First of all, she ends her marriage with Stockely in 1978 and, secondly, in 1985, her daughter, Bongi, dies mysteriously. Despite the loss, her river runs abundantly with opportunities. While dealing with her loss, Hugh Masekela introduces her to Paul Simon, who is planning a Graceland tour. In the same fashion, Hugh Masekela takes this opportunity and convinces Simon to include other artists in the tour and Simon welcomes the suggestion.

However, her involvement with Simon causes controversy as it breaks the cultural boycott of the country. And in return, the critics see it as contravening the boycott which she endorsed herself. However, Graceland became successful, and on the contrary , the concert in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, attracted fans of all races. Most importantly, fans are delighted to see Mama Makeba. Notably, Mama Makeba grabs the opportunity with all her might and continues to raise awareness about discrimination in South Africa. She also makes a plea to the fans to support the motion for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.

Traces of Makeba’s footprints back at home

The outdoor view of Castel Volturno in Italy

Eventually, her efforts pay off and she returns home. Maybe you might be asking how this happened? Well, a lot happened, but to cut the long story short, we see President FW De Klerk announcing the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Then, following Mandela’s release in 1990, he persuades her to come back home. And finally, she came back using her French passport in June 1990.

Heroically though, Mama Mirriam Makeba gets a heart attack during the concert in Castel Volturno in Italy. They rush her to Pineta Grande clinic where doctors fail to revive her. The news of her death is saddening but again heroic. Overall, the following quote by President Nelson Mandela shares my own sentiments about Mama Mirriam Makeba. “The South African lady of song. It is fitting that she died for a good cause” he said.

In addition to quotes made in her remembrance, one of the family members let us into the world of Mama Makeba’s declarations. And these declarations summarize her journey around the world. “I will sing until the last day of my life” she said.

The Significance of Irony in Anthropology

In tracking Mama Mirriam Makeba’s journeys around the world, I discovered a mystery and an irony. By mystery, I mean her journey through life and all the places she travelled to had some kind of connection. When I look at her journey around the world, for instance, I detect a pattern of blocks.

These patterns of blocks each have a set of purposes and tasks. And for every block she jumps into there’s a task to complete, and also not forgetting that music is a vehicle she uses to fulfil purposes in life. But then, there is an irony in the blocks . Isn’t it strange or rather thought provoking that Italy is the first and last destination she travels internationally? How ironic!




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