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On November 10, 2008, the world lost Miriam Makeba, a legendary musician and the gripping voice of Africa. Also known as ‘Mama Africa’, ‘the Empress of the African Song’ or simply Makeba, she was the first African woman to win a Grammy Award, and also the first African musician to leave South Africa because of apartheid.

As a civil rights activist, she fought long and hard against apartheid. And if that wasn’t enough, she was one of the greatest vocalists of all time, with a distinctive style that juxtaposed jazz, folk and South African township rhythms all into one moving melody.

Born in Johannesburg, Makeba started her singing career in the 1950s and sang with the famous jazz group, the Manhattan Brothers. She later joined an-all female vocal group, the Skylarks. In 1967, her song Pata Pata became a Top 20 US hit while others such as the The Click Song and Malaika became instant hits. She received a Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording in 1966 together with Harry Belafonte for An Evening with Belafonte & Makeba (Belafonte was one of her five husbands).

The album addressed the suppressed pain of black South Africans’ struggle under apartheid. Throughout the span of her career, Makeba worked with world renowned music legends; Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte and Paul Simon. In 1962 she performed at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebrations.

Makeba died after performing on stage in Italy. She had once said “I will sing until the last day of my life” and she did.

Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon who invited her back to Africa after her 30 year exile, said it was quite “fitting” that she devoted her last evening to a performance on stage.

“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.”

She had once insisted in an interview, “I’m not a political singer… in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us.”

It is precisely this that made her music so gripping, raw and emotional.

– Nida Bano Qureshi

First published in the Adbuzzzz Section of The DAWN National Weekend Advertiser on December 14, 2008.