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14.11.2008 Africa

Miriam Makeba, an accidental heroine

By The Statesman

Miriam Makeba, the South African singer who died on Monday aged 76 after collapsing on stage in the southern Italian town of Baia Verde, was an accidental heroine.

It was only when the apartheid government refused to allow Makeba to return home for her mother's funeral in 1960 after a tour abroad that she began three nomadic decades in exile.

These transformed Makeba - in the words of Nelson Mandela, whose release from jail precipitated her homecoming in 1990 - into the "mother of our struggle'.

She was born to a spiritual healer mother and a teacher father in a township in 1932. Makeba's voice, which would eventually bring the distinctive click of indigenous southern African languages to a worldwide audience, began to take shape in church choirs.

Like Ray Charles or Robert Johnson in the US, her peculiar gift was to fuse gospel and traditional rhythms with the racier jazz and blues sounds that became inextricably linked with the campaign for civil rights.

By the late 1950s Makeba had made it big on the international stage, a leading light among stars such as Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. By 1962, she was singing for President John F. Kennedy.

Four years later Makeba was the first African woman to win a Grammy award.

But it was only after a cameo in an anti-apartheid film rendered her persona non grata at home that Makeba fully embraced the political power of her fame, going before the UN to lobby for sanctions against the racist regime.

'My life, my career, every song I sing and every appearance I make, are bound up with the plight of my people,' she wrote in her 1988 autobiography.

Increasingly known as Mama Afrika, her private and public personas fused with her 1968 marriage to Stokely Carmichael the Black Panther leader.

From a new home in Guinea, Makeba attracted reproach from some quarters for her apparent tolerance towards a handful of dictatorial regimes.

'Whilst this great lady was alive she would say: 'I will sing until the last day of my life',' her family said in a statement on Monday.

That was precisely what happened. She died shortly after losing consciousness while taking part in an anti-racism, anti-mafia gig in solidarity with six immigrants whose death has been linked to Neapolitan organised crime. Her final concert included 'Pata Pata', perhaps her best known song.

'She was one of the foremost cultural activists for the liberation struggle,' said Andrew Feinstein, a former MP in the ruling African National Congress, and jazz aficionado.

He places her alongside Abdullah Ibrahim, the jazz maestro, and Hugh Masekela, the trumpeter and one of her five husbands, as the musicians who did most to promote the image of the often beleaguered South African resistance abroad.

At home, too, as apartheid's brutal force was felt ever more heavily in the bloodstained townships, the sight of Makeba and her comrades in full, outraged voice was something to cling to, Mr Feinstein said.

'For South Africans looking outwards, seeing people they knew to be close to the struggle succeeding, it gave them a sense of hope.'