10 November 2008
South African singer Miriam Makeba, one of Africa’s best known voices, passed away on Sunday after collapsing during a special benefit concert in the southern Italian town of Caserta, Italian news agency ANSA reported on Monday.
Makeba (76) was performing in a concert for Roberto Saviano, a writer threatened with death by the Mafia, the Italian agency said. She died shortly after singing for half an hour, along with other singers and artists, for the young author of Gomorrah at Castel Volturno near Naples.
She took ill and was rushed to a clinic in Castel Volturno, where she died of a heart attack, ANSA reported.
“One of the greatest songstresses of our time, Miriam Makeba, has ceased to sing,” South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement on Monday. “Miriam Makeba, South Africa’s Goodwill Ambassador, died doing what she did best – communicating a positive message through the art of singing.”
Makeba, known as “Mama Africa”, was for decades the musical voice of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Born of a Swazi mother and Xhosa father in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932, Makeba captured international attention as a vocalist for the South African group The Manhattan Brothers when they toured the United States in 1959.
The following year, when she wanted to return home to bury her mother, the apartheid state revoked her citizenship, and later also banned her music. As a result she spent 31 years in exile, living in the United States and later in Guinea.
She became the first black African woman to receive a Grammy Award, winning the Grammy for Best Folk Recording with US folk singer Harry Belafonte for the album An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba in 1965.
Two years later, her fame sky-rocketed with the recording of the all-time hit “Pata Pata” (Xhosa for “touch, touch”, describing a township dance) – although she unknowingly signed away all royalties on the song.
She hit an all-time low in 1985 when her only daughter, Bongi, died aged 36 from complications from a miscarriage. Makeba did not have money to buy a coffin for Bongi, and buried her alone, barring a handful of journalists from covering the funeral.
But, according to her biography, she picked herself up again, as she had done many times before: when her father died at a young age; when recovering from cervical cancer; and after her many unhappy relationships.
She returned to South Africa in the 1990s, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but it took a cash-strapped Makeba six years to find someone in the local recording industry to produce a record with her.
She since released Homeland, which contains a song describing her joy to be back home after many years in exile during which she spoke out against apartheid and testified twice before the United Nations.
“I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots,” Makeba says in her biography. “Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising.”