By Don Heckman
The last Los Angeles performance by Miriam Makeba – “Mama Africa,” “The Empress of African Song” as she was affectionately labeled by her fans around the world – was in 2005. It was preceded by a comment that she made months earlier, in which she said, “I am 73 now; it (touring) is taxing on me.” She also added that, “But as long as I’ll have my voice, I’ll keep on recording.”<
I spoke to her after that concert, and she said, with a sly look, “Don’t pay so much attention to that remark.”
That was reassuring, given her still-vital capacity to bring life and vitality to her music, while poignantly linking herself to her South African roots. And, although she spoke of farewell appearances, she continued singing. Until Sunday, when she collapsed on stage in Castel Volturno, near the southern Italian city of Naples and died of a heart attack. Makeba, who was 76, had reportedly just finished singing her high spirited hit song, “Pata Pata.”
Makeba’s rich, fertile life took her from Sophiatown in South Africa to a starring role in the 1959 anti-apartheid documentary, “Come Back Africa,” which led to a thirty year exile from her native country. But her career continued. She was the first African woman to win a Grammy award, she partnered musically with artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone to Paul Simon, Harry Belafonte and Hugh Maskela (to whom she was briefly married).
I wrote more than a dozen reviews of Makeba’s performances over the past two decades – recordings and live performances – and several articles and interviews. Each was a memorable experience, in part for the extraordinary musicality she brought to everything she sang. But my most powerful recollections have more to do with the strength of her personality, the warmth of her soul and the genuineness of who she was as a human being. Miriam Makeba was, in the truest sense of the phrase, one of a kind.