Monday, November 10, 2008

Heroobit: Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba has died in Italy, apparently after being taken ill on stage.

Born in South Africa in 1932, Makeba was a powerful voice against apartheid - to the extent that her citizenship was revoked in 1960, forcing her to live in exile for three decades.

Musically, her journey took her from supporting vocals in her cousin's Cuban Brothers group, through the all-woman Skylarks, to a powerful solo career launched with a role in the musical King Kong. But it was an appearance in Come Back Africa which shaped her life - she sang two songs in the anti-apartheid movie and appeared in Venice when the film was shown at the festival. It was from this trip that she would not return for 31 years - she was saved by a US visa organised by Harry Belafonte.

Although - along with most African music - it's often thought that she was 'discovered' during her work with Paul Simon when he was being the Damon Albarn of the 1980s, she had an American chart hit as early as 1967 with Pata Pata. Her status in America, though, took a knock in 1968 when she married Stokely Carmichael. Although keen to offer her a safe haven from her racist government at home, some Americans weren't happy for her to become connected so publicly to their own civil rights movement. Her records were dropped from the radio, promoters declining to offer her slots on stage.

By now, though, other African nations were coming to her aid - Guinea was the first to offer her a diplomatic passport, but others would follow (Castro also gave her the status of a Cuban diplomat). Eventually, she would settle in Belgium where she stayed until 1990. That year, Mandela's government welcomed her back to her native South Africa as a hero.

Makeba continued to work until 2005, when she announced an intention to withdraw from music. Her farewell gig had been supposed to be in Wurzburg in 2006, but she was tempted back on stage for this year's Brighton Festival. She had been peforming once again - at an event in support of Roberto Saviano and against organised crime - when she was taken ill.

Miriam Makeba was 76; her publicist told the South African station Talk Radio 702 that she had been suffering from bad arthritis for some time but did not know the cause of her death.