By AUDREY FISCHER
The Library of Congress recently celebrated the life of Grammy-award winning singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) with film clips from her concerts, live performances by her fellow musicians and remembrances from those who knew her. The March 22 event also marked the 50th anniversary of the Library’s African Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division, which sponsored the tribute to Makeba.
The event began with “pouring libation,” an African ritual used to summon the ancestors on special occasions. “We revere our elders but we worship a God,” said Vera Oye’ Yaa-Anna, who performed the ceremony.
Those who spoke about Makeba’s “beautiful spirit” included Georges Collinet, documentary producer and host of the internationally distributed radio program Afropop Worldwide, and percussionist Okyerema Asante, who also performed.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1932, Makeba began performing with the Manhattan Brothers in the 1950s before forming her own group, The Skylarks. She began collaborating with her future husband, the composer and trumpeter Hugh Masakela, whose music portrayed the struggles against oppression and apartheid. On a trip to London, she met the famed folksinger Harry Belafonte, who helped her enter the United States, where she gained fame for songs like “Pata Pata” and “The Click Song.” In 1966, the two singers shared a Grammy Award for their album, “An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba,” which dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid.
For her outspoken activism, Makeba was exiled from her country in the early 1960s. When her controversial marriage to civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael made it difficult for her to perform and earn recording contracts in the U.S., the couple moved to Guinea. For a time, Makeba served as that country’s delegate to the United Nations. Following the breakup of her marriage and the death of her daughter Bongi, Makeba moved to Brussels in 1985. She joined Paul Simon and South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo during their worldwide “Graceland” tour in 1987. Featuring African rhythms, the album earned a Grammy Award.
Following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1991, the future president of South Africa persuaded Makeba to return to her native country after nearly 30 years in exile. In the years that followed, she wrote her autobiography, “My Story,” starred in the film “Sarafina!” that dealt with the 1976 youth uprisings in Soweto, promoted HIV and AIDS prevention and continued to record and perform.
True to her own words, “I will sing until I die,” Makeba died singing in Italy after performing her signature song, “Pata Pata.” The concert was in support of an Italian journalist who was fighting organized crime. She was 76 years old.
Eve Ferguson of the Library's African Section gave “special thanks to the artists and speakers who have donated their time to honor Miriam Makeba and to Zodwa Sikakane of the Embassy of South Africa, without whom this program would not have been possible.”
The Library’s tribute to Makeba was brought to a close with a performance by Mongezi Ntaka and Kuku of “Nkosi Sikeleli Africa,” the African National Anthem.
The Library holds Makeba’s 1988 autobiography, “My Story,” a 2004 biography titled “Makeba: The Miriam Makeba Story” (Makeba in conversation with Nomsa Mwamuka), several film clips of her performances; a photograph taken in 1963, and numerous sound recordings, including her Grammy-winning album with Harry Belafonte.