It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba. In fact, I think that the nickname "Mama Africa" evokes the universality of her values, her valiant struggle against racial injustice, her incredibly sensual and peerless vocal virtuosity, her trendsetting hairdo and dress styles, and her indomitable spirit well beyond the physical frontiers of Africa.
And yes, Haiti too. I am dating myself, but I remember when a Miriam Makeba hairdo was all the rage in Haiti among both young and mature women.
By association, Miriam Makeba makes me remember the sensational off-Broadway play "Sarafina" which featured the music of the great trumpetist/composer and once Miriam's husband, Hugh Masekela. "Sarafina" was a play that marked me deeply and will stay with me forever. Though Makeba herself was not part of the cast, the play was about a terrible moment of the apartheid period in South Africa, of which Miriam came to symbolize the resistance from abroad, in her songs and poignant messages. The young actors in that play lived their lives in South Africa, before getting out to perform it at enormous risk to themselves. They had of course never met Miriam as she had already been in exile longer than they had been alive. Yet, it seems that they had fully bonded with her and recognized her role in the struggle. In a very special performance (for PBS, I believe), the producers had arranged for Miriam to come and meet the cast after the performance and they had no idea it was going to happen. The recording of that encounter was one of the most emotional I have ever witnessed. The kids were in tears and crying "Mama, Mama, Mama". I will replay this, and I know already that I will not be able to withhold my own tears.
If you can get your hands on this very special performance of "Sarafina" (the play, not the movie), I urge you not to let the opportunity pass by. Check PBS. Check Amazon. Check Ebay. Check your friends. Better yet, come and see it at my place. It will be my pleasure.
A performance of Mama Africa that I also highly recommend is her participation in the "Graceland" concert in Zimbabwe with Paul Simon and Hugh Masekela. Oh, I have only played it a couple hundred times. I'll be happy to show it to you too. You may be a Seventh-Day Adventist or whatever, I guarantee that you will not be able to keep yourself from dancing. Miriam Makeba's performance was incredibly moving. That was not long before Nelson Mandela was set free, but you could feel the full effect of her cry for freedom:
"I want to see Nelson and Winnie Mandela, hand in hand, walking down the streets of Soweto."
Miriam Makeba, "Mama Africa", and by extension "Mama Ayiti" too. Thank you for your art. Thank you for your example. Thank you for your beauty. Thank you for your life.
We will continue the struggle... always.
Guy S. Antoine
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