From Exile, The Voice of South Africa
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
It was a time of ghosts in South Africa. Men and women who were heroes in the anti-apartheid movement were banned. No pictures anywhere of Nelson Mandela, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba. You could be jailed for the offense. Children had to imagine them from stories told by their parents.
But you could hear the ghosts, especially Masekela and Makeba, onetime husband and wife -- powerful, jazzy, trilling, syncopated music -- if you got to some out-of-the-way shebeen, which was what they call the little watering holes in Soweto, or into some brave soul's home. There was something sweet and dangerous about listening to banned music. It was an act of rebellion.
Miriam Makeba, who died Sunday in Italy of a heart attack while performing onstage, seemed to be everywhere she wasn't supposed to be when I landed in South Africa in 1990. You could hear her in a park, some family with a cassette player lying atop a blanket, her voice rising and falling and rising. You could hear her just beyond the kick of a soccer ball at a neighborhood field. (The volume was never too high out in public. Those big yellow tanks with South African soldiers could roar into view out of nowhere.) You could always hear her at funerals, someone's boombox set on the back of a pickup truck. Miriam over there, and over there, and right there. It was as if she were hiding in the trees.
The lady famous for "Pata Pata," "Kilimanjaro," "The Click Song" and so many others performed around the world, with Paul Simon, Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte, who helped introduce her to American audiences.
But you never heard her voice in South Africa's office buildings or police stations. Her music wasn't piped into the sound system in stores. Family members kept their Makeba in shoeboxes, in tin tubs in the back yard, anyplace save out in the open.
Alf Kumalo, a great Johannesburg photographer, and Jovial Rantao, a local reporter, gave me some of her tapes shortly after my arrival. "You must listen to Makeba, man," Rantao said. The tape that stood out was an underground compilation of music she had performed with the Skylarks and the Manhattan Brothers. That was before her passport had been revoked in 1960 while she was out of the country. She'd been palling around with human rights activists in America and Europe, and the South African government didn't appreciate it.
Even if some of the selections on the tapes were in Xhosa and Zulu and beyond me, it sounded lyrical, a tender blending of gospel and jazz. Kumalo and Rantao warned me that I must take the tape out of the car's cassette player whenever approaching a military police roadblock. I was fast on the yank. Then, pulling away, there was Miriam, filling the car again.
On my first visit to a Soweto shebeen, I skipped the homemade brew, but the fried potatoes were quite tasty. It was dark outside, as if the dark had doubled over on itself. Everyone worried about soldiers, but I relaxed knowing Rantao had my back. Then came Makeba's lovely voice. There were other voices, too, but you listened for Makeba. She was the voice of a country, achieving a one-name appellation like de Klerk or Mandela. That's a big chunk of the country's identity right there -- the Afrikaans president who made the important overtures to Mandela; the freedom fighter imprisoned 27 years; and the lady who was the international voice for the townships.
She'd found her way but lost her homeland. Blood spilled in South Africa -- Sharpeville, Soweto -- and they sang her music in the jail cells.