TO be the voice of a nation speaking to the wider world is a tough mission for any performer. To be the voice of an entire continent is exponentially more difficult.
Both were mantles that the South African singer Miriam Makeba took on willingly and forcefully. Despite her lifelong claim that she was not a political singer, she became â€œMama Africaâ€ with an activistâ€™s tenacity and a musicianâ€™s ear. She died Sunday, at 76, after a concert in Italy.
Treating her listeners as one global community, Makeba sang in any language she chose, from her own Xhosa to the East African lingua franca Swahili to Portuguese to Yiddish. She also took sides: against South African apartheid and for a worldwide movement against racism, to the point of derailing her career when she married the black power advocate Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960s. (They were divorced in the mid-1970s.)
Even during three decades of life as an exile and expatriate â€” the South African government revoked her passport in 1960 â€” she made it clear that South Africa was her home and her bedrock as an artist.
Her voice, more properly voices, were unstoppable. Always cosmopolitan, Makeba knew her Billie Holiday as well as old Xhosa melodies like The Click Song, with its percussive syllables, which became one of her international hits. She could sound light, lilting and girlish; she could be flirtatious, bluesy or utterly exuberant.
Her voice also held a layer of rawer, sharper exhortation: the tone of village songs and spirit invocations, the traditions that were her birthright â€” songs she revisited on her 1988 album Sangoma.
Her huge repertory did not feature strident protest songs but in love songs and lullabies, party songs and calls for unity there was an indomitable will to survive: a joyful tenacity that could translate as both deep cultural memory and immediate defiance.
Makeba didnâ€™t have the career of a pop singer, thinking about hits and trends and markets. She followed conscience and history instead, becoming a symbol of integrity and pan-Africanism â€” lending her imprimatur, for instance, by performing on Paul Simonâ€™s 1987 Graceland tour, which carried South African music worldwide while implicitly pointing to the apartheid that still prevailed at home.
Through five decades of making music, down to her final studio album, Reflections, in 2004 and concerts till the day she died, she sang with a voice that was unmistakably African, and just as unmistakably fearless. â€“â€“ New York Times.