In South Africa the Thirties were a time of racial segregation and oppression. Miriam Makeba’s schoolteacher father, a member of the Xhosa tribe, moved to Prospect Township, a shantytown located near Johannesburg where Miriam was born in 1932 into a home with no electricity or running water. Her mother, a Swazi, worked as a domestic in a white Johannesburg household. Supplementing her income by illegally selling home-brewed beer, she was eventually charged for the offence and spent six months in jail. Her daughter, just 18 days old, went with her.
Miriam attended Kilnerton Training Institute, a Methodist school for African children in the South African administrative capital of Pretoria, a short distance from Johannesburg. She sang in the school choir, where her vocal talents were encouraged and where she was given the opportunity to perform in public.
Even before this, she had picked up the traditional songs in the Xhosa and Zulu dialects, characterised by clicks unknown in any other language. She also discovered other music, listening to the radio and to records. She loved American jazz singers, especially Ella Fitzgerald.
After eight years’ schooling, she started work with her mother as a servant in white homes. She married at around age 17 and had a daughter named Bongi. The marriage was short-lived and in order to support the baby, as well as continuing to work as a domestic, she sang at weddings, funerals, and other events.
Through this she met a professional group of eleven men called the Black Manhattan Brothers, who asked Makeba to join as their female vocalist in 1954. She sang with the ensemble until 1957, performing throughout South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the Belgian Congo (now Zaire). In 1956 she recorded her signature song, ‘Pata Pata’, which would eventually become an American hit in 1967.
She left the Black Manhattan Brothers, and formed an all-female group called the Skylarks in 1958. The following year saw her begin touring with Alf Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety Show, the launch-pad for the careers of many African artists. She also began performing solo, and became established in her native land thanks to a series of popular recordings. Miriam further enhanced her reputation as the female lead in the jazz opera King Kong; she played Joyce, the owner of an illegal drinking den or shebeen.
But it was her singing appearance in the documentary film Come Back, Africa (1959) which attracted the interest of American singer and activist Harry Belafonte. The film tells the story of Zachariah, a black South African man living under the rule of the oppressive apartheid government. Banned in South Africa, it was screened at the Venice Film Festival. Makeba travelled to Venice and, following this, went to London where she met Belafonte. With his help, she settled in the United States where she continued her singing and recording career.
In 1960, she was denied re-entry into South Africa and, during an exile lasting over three decades, was issued passports from nine different countries; she often referred to herself as a ‘citizen of the world’. In 1964 and 1975, Miriam addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on the horrors of apartheid and, in 1968, won the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize.
In 1962, Makeba performed at the birthday celebration of President John F Kennedy and went on to record a couple of albums with Harry Belafonte. In 1965, they jointly won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording.
Miriam Makeba returned to world prominence in the mid Eighties when she performed with Paul Simon. This focused attention on apartheid in Makeba’s homeland, where she would eventually return, encouraged by Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.
She sang in many languages, introducing to the West a number of Xhosa, Zulu and Swahili songs. Her two biggest hits – ‘The Click Song’, which starts off this 3CD set, and ‘Pata Pata’, which starts CD2 – are in the South African language Xhosa.
Her first, self-titled US album in 1960 contained a mixture of traditional African-language songs featured here such as ‘Olilili’ and ‘Mbube’, as well as her interpretations of Western songs such as ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ and ‘One More Dance’. Her next album in 1962 was a return to her roots and is showcased on these CDs in its entirety. Many of the sub-titled songs are from that era, including ‘Liwa Wechi (A Congolese Lament Where The Wife Bids Farewell As He Leaves For The Mines)’; ‘Kilimanjaro (Hunting Song And Boot Dance)’ and ‘Ntjilo Ntjilo (Lullaby To A Child About A Little Canary)’.
Makeba had previously recorded with the Skylarks in South Africa, and we also feature here tracks like ‘Kutheni Sithandwa’, ‘Vula Amasango’ and ‘Yini Madoda’ from the late Fifties.
Often referred to as ‘Mama Africa’, Miriam Makeba was globally-minded, spreading the story of apartheid and South African culture throughout the world. By the time of her death in 2008, at the age of 76, she had issued 30 original albums and 19 compilations, as well as collaborating with other musicians. This collection provides a fine illustration of her early singing years – a great introduction to a great personality.