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Outspoken Folk Singer Miriam Makeba, 76

Miriam Makeba died Sunday after a concert in Italy.
Miriam Makeba died Sunday after a concert in Italy. "I feel very lucky that at my age I can still get up on that stage and hold my own," she said in 2000. "I've always been singing, and I will die singing." (1988 Washington Post Photo)
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By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Miriam Makeba, 76, a revered South African folk singer and activist who was among the first female African singers to achieve international success, and who became a powerful voice in the anti-apartheid movement after being exiled from her country, has died.

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Ms. Makeba died of cardiac arrest Nov. 9 after a concert in a town northwest of Naples, Italy.

As a young woman, her role in the controversial anti-apartheid film "Come Back, Africa" brought her international recognition at film festivals and career help from Harry Belafonte.

With his backing, she made an appearance on Steve Allen's television variety show. Ms. Makeba later performed on the same bill with Marilyn Monroe at John F. Kennedy's birthday in 1962, as a warm-up act before the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and with Paul Simon on his 1987 Graceland concert tour in Zimbabwe.

Her emergence as a popular entertainer raised her artistic profile but made her unwelcome back home. After being barred from returning to attend her mother's funeral in 1960, Ms. Makeba began strongly criticizing the apartheid system. At a speech to the United Nations in 1963, she condemned "police brutality and government terrorism" in South Africa.

Popularly known as "Mama Africa," she remained in exile until the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. During her international career, she became an icon for African expatriates and was the first African woman to win a Grammy Award. She shared the musical honor, for best folk recording, with Belafonte for their anti-apartheid album "An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba" (1965).

She said her career was severely damaged by her 1968 marriage to militant black activist Stokely Carmichael. Her recording contract was canceled, as were her concerts. They settled in Guinea, where she lived as the guest of President Ahmed Sékou Touré.

She sang in nearly as many languages as countries she visited, with repertory in Xhosa, Zulu, Portuguese, English, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish and French.

Her signature was tongue-clicking music in her native Xhosa language, including "Qongquothwane," popularly known as "The Click Song."

Her song "Mbube" was a version of the Zulu song that became known as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Paul Simon brought her on tour in 1987 for his album "Graceland," along with South African musician Hugh Masekela and the Grammy-winning group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Zensi Miriam Makeba was born March 4, 1932, in Prospect township outside Johannesburg. Her father, of the Xhosa people, was a teacher, and her mother, a Swazi, was a domestic servant.

As a teenager, she assisted her mother doing domestic chores in white homes. She also sang at weddings and funerals, toured with local musical groups and appeared in theatrical productions before her role in "Come Back, Africa."

She was married five times, including once to Masekela. A daughter from her first marriage died in 1985, and she had trouble paying expenses for a coffin, according to Agence France-Presse. She said she had signed away royalties on her greatest hit, "Pata Pata."

"My life has been like a yo-yo," she told Salon in 2000. "One minute I'm dining with presidents and emperors, the next I'm hitchhiking. I've accepted it. I say, 'Hey, maybe that's the way it was written, and it has to be.' And that maybe there's a reason why I'm still here."

She moved back to South Africa at the invitation of Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s and was outspoken about the need to help AIDS patients. Her final concert, last Sunday, was for a journalist who had received death threats for writing about organized crime. She announced her retirement in 2005, but never stopped giving concerts.

"I feel very lucky that at my age I can still get up on that stage and hold my own," she told writer James Gavin in 2000. "I've always been singing, and I will die singing."


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