I was very small when I first heard Miriam Makeba. I'd come downstairs early one morning to see my mother putting on some music to jam to while cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. Momma danced through the house all day and when I asked her what the songs meant, she said she'd gotten the records from Sophia, a South African student who was studying at Purdue, just across the river. We'd ask her next time we saw her.
Sophia was like nothing and no one I'd ever seen--she was tall (or so she seemed to me at 8), mahogany, had a melodious accent, wore thread and beads in her long hair and was a refugee. Since the 1960's the South African government had been rescinding the visas of traveling students and others. Effectively, she and the others in her little contingent, were exiles.
Sophia brought us Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. Momma brought Sophia Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. What an exchange.
Our little house in that newly-integrated neighborhood (that would be us) was filled with people, music and foods from around the world.
Though it was that day I spent with Sophie--she was teaching Momma how to do my hair South-African style (in little semi-rural Lafayette, Indiana!) that I found out what Ms. Makeba was singing about. Her songs were about rural life there. They were about the evils of apartheid. They were about a deep love of Africa...about Zulu life. Sophia would say "here, she's saying 'Momma hurry. Don't let the Afrikaner police catch you!'' and "here she's singing a wedding song. Can you say the letter ! (the symbol for the click)." And my mother would pass her more beads and thread.
Ms. Makeba has suffered greatly before and during her exile. Before leaving South Africa, she and her band mates had been in a terrible accident with another car. The emergency medical personnel only helped the whites. Ms. Makeba's Black South African friends were left to die on the side of the road.
Human road kill.
Years later, she would return to South Africa a heroine. Nelson Mandela persuaded her to return after his release. He wrote this, in part, of her passing.
Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years.
At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us. (read the rest)
So, when I heard that Ms. Makeba died on Monday while singing in Italy, I pushed back my desk chair and listened quietly to the retrospective on her life. And remembered...dancing through Momma's kitchen, singing songs a far away woman had taught me to sing, with beads clicking in my hair.