Miriam Makeba

By Santoro, Gene | The Nation, March 12, 1988 | Go to article overview

Miriam Makeba


Santoro, Gene, The Nation


Miriam Makeba

My life, my career, every song I sing and every appearance I make, are bound up with the plight of my people.

--Miriam Makeba

With the exception of Bob Marley's, perhaps no musical career since Paul Robeson's has illustrated so forcefully the bitter fruits of imperialism and racism as Miriam Makeba's. For the first time in years, Makeba has come out from under the censor's thumb (the entertainment industry's racist categories) and released a new record. Sangoma (Warner Bros.), the world for a diviner-healer like Makeba's own Swazi mother, seeks in part to resolve the rifts driven deep into African societies by their European conquerors. By collecting songs from various tribal cultures, it illustrates the working relationship between music and life. Whether they're intended for social events like calling forth healing spirits or for more mundane tasks like teaching young Xhosas how to make the clicks that are part of their language, Makeba wraps the songs in her rich and supple voice--now lilting and yodeling, now throaty and intent --to stunning effect. She subtly varies the arrangements and presentations, shaping her adaptations to convey the spirit of the original settings without lapsing into the dusty museumpiece format so beloved of folklorists. It's obvious that kind of treatment wouldn't occur to her; for Makeba, as for the peoples she's representing on this disk, the sounds caught here aren't relics, they're still alive. Hence their power and claim on our attention.

If Makeba's sheer talent has earned a hearing for her music, she's always known that that music had a social role to play. That awareness has frequently brought her, like Robeson and Marley, head to head with various authorities. One of her distinguishing traits, after all, is the way in which she has consistently sought the place of the griot in society, a timeless platform from which to comment on her own time. Though her earliest show-biz days in South Africa slotted her as an entertainer, as her fame grew she became aware of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. Brought to the United States through the influence of activist-performer Harry Belafonte, she not only hit the charts but with his encouragement began speaking out against apartheid at forums like the United Nations in 1963. As a consequence her records were banned in South Africa. (Her passport had already been revoked three years earlier.) Her politics also made an important impact on U.S. civil rights activism, and she eventually married Stokely Carmichael. It was a move for which she paid in ways too numerous to describe here, but which included the destruction of her U.S. musical career, her forum for effecting social consciousness and change.

Until now. Among the many ironies that Paul Simon's Graceland (Warner Bros.) has trailed in its massive wake is the vastly expanded awareness in this country of how the tangled transmission of music around the globe works. Simon himself, turned on to the sounds of South African mbaqanga or township jive by a bootleg cassette given to him by a friend, dealt with the political crosscurrents created by the making and release of Graceland with his usual reticence --explaining the he didn't want to make comments that might endanger the South African musicians he'd worked with. He did venture to say he hoped the audience that listened to Graceland would find its way past the boycott to the black South African musical forms which underlay his work, and wrote liner notes (and played tracks at his record-release press conference) intended to help launch just that process of education. Nevertheless, he then found himself under attack from people who wanted him to be more explicitly critical of apartheid (though he'd explicitly criticized it repeatedly); who demanded to know how he could take the politically insulting step of including Linda Ronstadt on a duet about Ladysmith Black Mambazo's leader, Joseph Shabalala, after she had played South Africa's Sun City apartheid entertainment complex; who refused to believe his relation to the music was anything but a rip-off, and so on. …

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