Miriam Makeba, the late South African singer, perhaps most famous for her song Pata Pata and being the first black woman to speak at the UN, is the subject of a documentary by Mika Kaurismaki, called Mama Africa.
Although hugely popular in her day, her name has fallen by the wayside despite her influence still touching artists today. She said in the film she feels her songs are not political, merely truthful, but nonetheless she was openly critical of apartheid and was exiled from South Africa for thirty years and her music banned.
Kaurismaki explained that Makeba had died two weeks prior to his planned interview with her and so his documentary is of archive interviews and performances stitched together with new footage of her surviving family and friends. It works well; a nostalgic look back at her life would not have been as enthralling as watching Makeba’s journey as she truly comes into her own, swapping 1950s fashion for traditional African garments and singing in tribal languages, nor would it have made her tragic life as surprising. Kaurismaki wanted to pay homage to the extraordinarily kind and talented woman and make the definitive documentary of her life and with Mama Africa, he has certainly turned the spotlight on her and found her new admirers.
“I look at an ant and see myself: a native South African, endowed with a strength much greater than my size, so I might cope with the weight of racism that crushes my spirit.”
In the documentary we learn that she became a mother figure for displaced Africans because of her kindness and cooking abilities as well as her political affiliations and her daughter, Bongi, dubbed her Mama Africa.
In archive footage, we hear her rendition of Mdbude and see her surrounded by three white men as backing singers, one of which is clearly entranced by her and it illustrates the inclusiveness of her music. The popularity of her music lies with it being so emotive and accessible despite being in languages that the listener might not understand, or in the case of “The Click Song” might not even recognise as language!
My only contention with the film is that it slides over Makeba’s childhood poverty and her tumultuous love life, although it does feature her marriage to Black Panther Stokely Carmichael and musician Hugh Maskela, but she had three more! It doesn’t mention her various battles with cancer either, although her heartache over the death of her grandson and her daughter are focused on. It is hard, however, to fit in a life to tumultuous and vibrant and tragic and Makeba’s into 90 minutes, and so it’s easy to forgive, especially when, after seeing Kaurismaki’s documentary you are tempted into finding about more about this extraordinary lady.
Somi is an American artist of Rwandan and Ugandian descent. She has been mentored by Hugh Masekela, famous South African trumpeter and one of Miriam Makeba’s ex husbands. Her music her a fushion of jazz and world music, but the influence of Makeba is strong.
Angelique Kidjo is from Benin and has been dubbed “Africa’s premier diva” by Time Magazine. Her songs are powerful and make you itch to dance to them, but how on earth she produces that powerful voice while spinning around dancing is beyond me and amazing to watch.