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Biography of Miriam MAKEBA

South Africa > Music : Miriam MAKEBA

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Born on 04/03/1932 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Miriam Makeba ( March 4,1932- November 9 ,2008),a  South African diva Miriam Makeba was  well known throughout the world known as the Mama Africa and the Empress of African Song. Miriam Makeba has a long and dramatic career behind her, both as a singer and human rights campaigner. She was the first vocalist to put African music onto the international map in the 1960s. 

She was a pioneer who played her early songs and blended different styles long before anyone even began to talk about "world music. She died  in southern Italy after performing at a concert against organized crime, hospital officials said. She was 76. Makeba apparently suffered a heart attack just at the end of the concert, where she had sung for about 30 minutes to show solidarity for Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, who received death threats after writing a book about the Camorra, the Naples-area crime syndicate.

Ms. Makeba wrote in 1987: “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realizing.

Miriam “Zenzi” Makeba was born near Johannesburg on March 4, 1932, to Caswell, a schoolteacher, and Christina, a domestic worker. When Zenzi was just 18 days old, her mother was arrested in their black township of Prospect, for selling home-brewed beer to supplement the family’s meager income. Mother and daughter served six months in jail while Zenzi’s siblings moved in with their grandmother near Pretoria. Caswell died five years later, leaving Christina with little choice but to send Zenzi to her grandmother’s home while she continued to work in Johannesburg.

With a musical family, Zenzi quickly learned traditional African songs and explored jazz by listening to the radio and records. Zenzi gave her first solo performance at the age of thirteen, when her high school choir sang for King George VI of England.

In 1949, Zenzi married school sweetheart James “Gooli” Kubay and soon gave birth to a daughter, Bongi. White doctors suggested a mastectomy to treat an abscess in Zenzi’s breast, but she refused, turning instead to her mother for traditional healing. Two years later, Zenzi left her husband because he had been physically abusing her. She supported her daughter by taking on domestic work and singing at weddings, funerals, and other events.

In 1954, Makeba joined the Manhattan Brothers, recording her signature song, “Pata Pata,” and performing throughout South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Belgian Congo. Makeba’s singing career quickly blossomed in South Africa as she made solo records and took on her professional name, Miriam Makeba. Between 1958 and 1960, she joined an all female group, the Skylarks, and toured with the musical African Jazz & Variety and the jazz opera King Kong.

Witnessing racist policies such as separate black and white audiences, Makeba vowed to sing about the poverty and injustice in South Africa.

She received invitations to visit Europe and America, where she came to the attention of Harry Belafonte and Steve Allen and was capitulated to stardom. 1959 saw her becoming the first South African to win a Grammy award for the album 'An Evening with Harry Belafonte & Miriam Makeba'.

Miriam became an exile in 1960 when South Africa banned her from returning to her birth country - she was deemed to be too dangerous and revolutionary - this was after she had appeared in an anti-apartheid documentary, entitled "Come Back Africa", and this upset the then white apartheid government of South Africa. Miriam only returned to South Africa thirty years later. Miriam took up refuge in London after the festival and met Harry Belafonte, who helped her to emigrate to the USA. There she built up her career again. She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others would follow her example.

In 1967, more than ten years after she wrote the song, "Pata Pata" was released in the United States and became a hit worldwide. It has since been re-recorded by numerous international artists. Miriam was a darling of the American public, but they turned against her when she split from the trumpet player and colleague Hugh Masekela and married the radical black activist, Stokely Carmichael, in 1968. This was too much for some of her conservative, white audiences in the USA and she was in trouble with the American authorities. Once again, she was at the receiving end of a dissatisfied and disgruntled country. Although the United States never banned her, her US concerts and recording contracts were suddenly cancelled.

She moved back to Africa, this time to Guinea (Sékou Touré régime)  where she was welcomed with open arms. Miriam continued to record songs and toured intensively. She was well respected by the government of Guinea and was asked to address the United Nations General Assembly as a Guinean delegate. She twice addressed the General Assembly, speaking out against the evils of apartheid.

Makeba continued to tour in Europe, South America, and Africa, releasing the acclaimed album A Promise in 1975. After Makeba and Carmichael divorced in 1978, Makeba stayed in Guinea, serving as the country’s ambassador to the UN and marrying a Belgian airline employee named Bageot Bah.

In the early 1980s, Makeba struggled with immense grief over the loss of her daughter Bongi to childbirth and her youngest grandson to illness. Makeba turned to religious faith and to music to help overcome her loss. In 1987, she joined Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo for the Graceland World Tour and by 1989 she had released two solo albums and written her autobiography, Makeba: My Story.

After thirty years of exile, Makeba returned to South Africa in 1991, following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Her first South African concert was a huge success, helping her launch a world tour and two successful albums, Eyes on Tomorrow (1991) and the Grammy-nominated Homeland (2000). Since her return from exile, Makeba has also helped craft the newly free South Africa: she has served as Goodwill Ambassador to the UN, founded the Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for Girls, and supported the struggle against HIV and AIDS.

 Although always regarding herself as a singer and not as a politician, Miriam's fearless humanitarianism has earned her many International awards, including the 1986 Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize and the UNESCO Grand Prix du Conseil International de la Musique. Makeba is also known for having inspired an enduring fashion in the 60's when the slogan "black is beautiful" was launched:

She has released over thirty albums over the years, and her powerful and distinctive voice retains the clarity and range that enable it to be both forceful as a protest march and as poignant as an African lullaby.

Miriam is MamaAfrica, a lady with a special touch. She has weathered many storms in her life, including several car accidents, a plane crash and even cervical  cancer. 

Her exceptional personal and artistic profile is part of the history of this century, all adding to the dramatic elements of an extraordinary life, making Miriam Makeba a living legend.

She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Afrika. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours,” Mr. Mandela’s was one of many tributes from South African leaders.

Pata Pata Song



Last update : 11/10/2008

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