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Miriam Makeba

(1932 – 2008)

 Miriam Makeba – South African-born singer, songwriter, actress, and activist who became known as Mama Afrika, one of the world’s most prominent performers in the 20th century.

Makeba grew up in Sophiatown, a segregated Black township outside of Johannesburg and began singing in a school choir at an early age. She became a professional vocalist in 1954, performing primarily in southern Africa. 

By the late 1950s her singing and recording had made her well known in South African. In 1959, Makeba had a brief role in the anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa, which brought her international attention, and led to her performing in Venice, London, and New York City. In London, she met the American singer Harry Belafonte, who became a mentor and colleague. She moved to New York City, where she became immediately popular, and recorded her first solo album in 1960. Her attempt to return to South Africa that year for her mother’s funeral was prevented by the country’s government. 

She sang a variety of popular songs but especially excelled at Xhosa and Zulu songs, which she introduced to Western audiences. She also became known for songs that were critical of apartheid. She lived in exile for three decades for her views. 

Makeba married the American Black activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968.  She relocated with Carmichael to Africa, settled in Guinea, and then moved to Belgium, continuing to record and tour in Africa and Europe. In 1990 the South African Black activist Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from his extended imprisonment, encouraged Makeba to return to South Africa, and she performed there in 1991 for the first time since her exile. Although she was plagued by health problems, she continued to perform in subsequent years, and she died of a heart attack shortly after giving a concert in Italy in 2008.

Among the songs for which she was internationally known were “Pata Pata” and one known as the “Click Song” in English; both featured the distinctive click sounds of her native Xhosa language. Makeba made 30 original albums, in addition to 19 compilation albums and appearances on the recordings of several other musicians.  She also always had Brazilians in her band primarily Sivuca, as a result she also popularized many Brazilian songs among them Chuve Chuve and Mas Que Nada.

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