From Daily Independent (Lagos)
12 November 2008
Fittingly, the South African icon Miriam Makeba passed on after
performing at a concert in Southern Italy against organized crime.
The manner of her transition is a poignant testimony as to how her
talents as a musician were always directed as part of the effort to
Her demise represents a profound loss to the African continent. Her
musical contribution was a factor in bringing down the obnoxious
apartheid system. There is every reason to be grateful that she lived
to see the unmourned dismantling of that system.
She could, of course, have taken the other route. Collaboration with
the apartheid government would have made her life much more
comfortable. She would definitely have saved herself the
inconvenience of exile. The price was high. For example, in 1960 her
attempt to return home to South Africa for her mother's funeral was
rebuffed by the authorities. She suddenly discovered that her
passport had been revoked. To lose the opportunity to bury her mother
must have left emotional scars and yet she fought on with nobility
for a cause she believed in.
By deploying her talents, she set an example for a host of other
artistes and musicians. Activitism such as hers was a precursor for
later initiatives by musicians such as the "Concert for Bangladesh",
"Woodstock" and the various band aid initiatives. She had began a
trend and set a worthy example.
The process that people like Makeba initiated can best be captured in
a statement by the American President-elect, Barack Obama, who stated
during his election campaign that "Change will not come if we wait
for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have
been waiting for. We are the change that we seek". Her noble role is
in stark contrast to those (admittedly) lesser talented Nigerian
musicians who repugnantly collaborated for pecuniary benefit in
offering their services to Sani Abacha's so-called million man march.
Makeba's activitism straddled the decisive phase of the
anti-apartheid struggle. She entered international prominence when
she appeared in the anti-apartheid documentary "Come Back, Africa" in
1959. In 1963, she made a moving speech when she appeared before the
United Nations (UN) Special Committee on Apartheid calling for an
international boycott of South Africa. Her non-stop activitism cannot
overshadow her greatness as one of the truly outstanding artists for
our time. The South African foreign Minister - Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma
- was absolutely correct in stating that, "One of the greatest
songsters of our time, Miriam Makeba has ceased to sing."
She was awesomely talented. Some of her hit songs such as "Pata
Pata", "The Click song" and "Malaika" are not just evergreen, they
have become seminal classics.
She started her career first of all with an amateur group. In the
1950s she became a full time singer appearing with a band called "The
Manhattan Brothers", before forming her own group, "The Skylarks"
whose repertoire infused a blending of jazz with the traditional
melodies of indigenous South Africa. This fusion created an original
brew widely imitated and copied and still a significant theme in
music today. As one observer, Laurence Ani, has perceptibly pointed
out: "The true test of art is in its ability to stay evergreen.
Makeba's music has remained appealing decades after, surviving the
onslaught of disco, hip-hop and the sub-cultures they have inspired
in Africa." She had great sessions and toured with contemporary
musical icons such as Paul Simon, Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, Pizzy
Gillepsic amongst many others.
Not surprisingly, the singer as activist who was received by world
leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Francois Mitterand,
Haile Sellasie amongst others has been showered with accolade since
her demise at home and abroad. In her own country of origin, the
African National Congress (ANC), which spearheaded the struggle
against the apartheid regime was fulsome in its tribute. "The ANC
will forever treasure the contribution made by Miriam Makeba in the
struggle for liberation and building of our democracy", the Party stated.
Younger artists for whom she was an endearing role model also mourned
her passing. The South African diva, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, stated that
"she is a legend. We will surely miss her." Here in Nigeria, Lagos
State Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, captured the mood of the
moment when he expressed his disappointment that Africa's greatest
songster would not be alive to sing at the inauguration of Barack
Obama as the 44th President of the United States.
This newspaper salutes the indomitable courage of Mama Afrika. Her
life is a testimony to courage and the use of God-given talents for
the benefit of humanity. She made us all feel so proud to be Africans.
Originally published in Daily Independent, Lagos, Nigeria.