STORY BY DWIGHT CASIMERE
TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL
MOMMA AFRICA: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MIRIAM MAKEBA-
THE VOICE THAT FELLED APARTHEID
NEW YORK—“Momma Africa” is a powerful documentary which recounts the life and times of the legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. It charts her early beginnings as a street singer in the slums of Johannesburg, through her fledgling career as a soloist in local “girl groups” modeled after the early rhythm and blues groups that would become the Motown Sound. It continued to her exile and subsequent meteoric rise to international fame that would bring South Africa’s dirty little secret of Apartheid front and center on the world stage, exposing it under the floodlight of international scrutiny. Little did the South African government know that a skinny black singer from the bowels of Soweto would sing the glass shattering note that would ring down the evil empire of Apartheid.
Born Zenzile Miriam Makeba in Johannesburg in 1932, her life quickly became entwined with the racial strife and injustice of her native country. She spent the first six months of her life in jail when her mother was imprisoned by the government for selling homemade herbal remedies. In her youth, she sang with a local pop group, the Manhattans. She gained international fame when she appeared as the subject of an anti-apartheid film, Come Back Africa by independent American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. When she went with him to Italy to enter the film in the Venice Film Festival in 1959, where the film won the prestigious Critic’s Award, the South African government told her not to come back home and she would spend the majority of her remaining years in exile. Not until the triumphant release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 would she return to the shores of her beloved homeland.
The narrative to Momma Africa is told through the words of those who were with her throughout her tumultuous life and fantastic career.
We see and hear voices from her earliest days in South Africa, through her discovery in America by Harry Belafonte and her overnight rise to international fame. Her marriage to Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael brought an abrupt end to her career and forced her into voluntary exile in Guinea, where she would spend the next 15 years of her life. She would become close with then-President Sekou Toure and would become that country’s official delegate to the United Nations. From that bully pulpit on the world platform, her voice would become like the trumpet of Jerico, that would ring down the walls of Apartheid.
Winner of the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize and the UNESCO Grand Prix, she woiuld go on the help shape the newly free South Africa, and support the struggle against HIV/AIDS. In spite of her international triumphs, her life was not without personal tragedy.
Perhaps the most painful moments in her life were misfortunes suffered by those closest to her; the sudden and mysterious death of a grandson and the painful loss of her daughter and muse Bongi, who died in childbirth at the tender age of 35.
“That really changed her,” ex-husband Masekela said. “She never recovered from that. Above everything else that happened, that really broke her. That, and the fact that she knew her dream of African Unity was never to be.”
Among the voices we hear in the film, perhaps the most telling are those who were closest to her. Her grandson, Nelson Lumumba Lee, first husband, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and the musicians who worked with her and who were influenced by her. Perhaps the most telling words, and those which ground the documentary, are those of Grammy Award-winning Beninoise singer-songwriter and activist Angelique Kidjo, who curated the 2009 tribute show on her life and music, from which the film draws its name.
Miriam Makeba died as she lived, a performer dedicated to exposing injustice and fighting for human rights in song. She died, suffering a heart attack after singing her signature hit, “Pata Pata” at a benefit concert in Caserta, Italy. As one band member noted in the film, “she seemed to turn to me and say ‘I Love You’, the she turned away, walked just a couple of meters and collapsed.”
The words of one of her closest friends provides the epithet to the film. “She was a healer, just like her mother,” said singer Abigail Kubheka, who sang with Makeba in those early Manhattan Brothers days. “She was healer, not with herbs, like her mother, but with her music. She used her music to heal.”