After 27 years of exile, Miriam Makeba was only a couple of hundred miles from home.

"So close," Makeba sighs, recalling the first concert of Paul Simon's "Graceland" tour, which took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, in February 1987. When Makeba had left South Africa in 1959, Harare was still Salisbury, Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia and South Africa was still South Africa, the cage of apartheid.

"When they told me we were going to Zimbabwe, every day I said, 'I'm sure something is going to happen and we won't go,' " Makeba says, recalling the trip during a recent stopover in Washington.

"The day we left to go to England to catch the flight, I couldn't sit down, I was walking up and down the airport. I don't know if it's because I'm scared or not, but I get myself so tired the night before {a flight} that I usually get on, fasten my belt and fall asleep.

"But I couldn't sleep one wink when we were going to Zimbabwe. We talked, the whole cast, especially the South Africans. There was so much noise on my flight.

"When we arrived, it was almost like going home."

The concert, at the city's huge outdoor soccer stadium, drew a packed house of 14,000.

"I had no idea how many people were there until I went up on the stage and looked out and saw all these people -- black and white -- so tight in that stadium, just swinging to the music.

"And I said to myself, 'Why not next door?'

"It was a sad moment, but it was also beautiful. What was more beautiful is that 3,000 people came from South Africa to see the show and they all came to express something to us -- that they hope we will be able to come home -- someday."

I look at an ant and I see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with a racism that crushes my spirit. I look at a bird and I see myself: a native South African, soaring above the injustices of apartheid on the wings of pride, the pride of a beautiful people. I look at a stream and I see myself: a native South African, flowing irresistibly over hard obstacles until they become smooth and, one day, disappear -- flowing from an origin that has been forgotten toward an end that will never be.

-- From "Makeba: My Story"

She's been called Mama Africa, the Empress of African Song. When nations all over the continent threw off the yoke of colonial rule, it was usually Makeba who sang them into their new identities at independence day celebrations. In 1959, after several years of success in her native land, she'd been suddenly thrust into the international spotlight, championed by Harry Belafonte as "easily the most revolutionary new talent to appear in any medium in the last decade."

Singing in English and Xhosa, whose distinctive sound earned her the name "The Click Click Girl," Makeba was embraced in particular by American television and the recording industry. Critics fell over themselves comparing her to the icons of popular song -- "the smoky tones and delicate phrasing of Ella Fitzgerald, the brassy showmanship of Ethel Merman and the intimate warmth of Frank Sinatra," gushed Newsweek. The honesty with which Makeba talked about the bureaucratized oppression of apartheid intrigued the news media. On her opening night at the Village Vanguard in New York, Duke Ellington, Sidney Poitier, Miles Davis and Nina Simone were all in attendance.

"She is probably too shy to realize it," said Time magazine, "but her return to Africa would leave a noticeable gap in the U.S. entertainment world, which she entered a mere six weeks ago."

Makeba's mother died soon after Time's rave. When the singer went to the South African consulate in New York to arrange her return home, a white bureaucrat stamped her passport "Invalid" and walked away, sending her into immediate exile.

For all her initial successes, the downside has been tremendous -- the original exile from her homeland; a second kind of career exile from America in the '60s, after she married black activist Stokely Carmichael and stopped getting bookings; two bouts with cancer; five failed marriages; and perhaps the most shattering event, the death of her only child, a daughter named Bongi.

Makeba's life, then, has resonated with both success and tragedy, and after many years of prodding, she has finally told it in "Makeba: My Story" (NAL Books/New American Library). And fueled by the international acclaim she received on the "Graceland" tour, Makeba also has just released "Sangoma," her first record in seven years. A a compelling collection of tribal songs she learned from her mother, it is Makeba's first American album in almost two decades. In the spring, with Hugh Masekela, she will headline her first American tour in 18 years (including an April 17 date at the Warner).

She is 55 now, stout, the short Afro flecked with gray. She wears no makeup. Her manner is modest, her voice soft. At 5 feet 3 inches, she was never a giant, except in the eyes of the world. Now, with those eyes turned toward the daily, endemic horrors of the apartheid system, Makeba's autobiography is one more thread in the fabric of liberation.

"I'd often been approached," she says in gentle tones that suggest she has yet to abandon totally her childhood shyness. "But I didn't think I had anything to say to anyone. One young South African friend, though, persisted and told me I had to because it's important to them for me to tell about my long road."

And so American writer James Hall went to Guinea, where Makeba has lived since 1968, and they spent seven weeks "just talking and talking and talking. I would cry sometimes because it was so hard to go back on some of the things, especially my child. Halfway through, I regretted it, because I realized I was putting myself way out there. But I had already said yes so it was too late."

Although "Makeba" catalogues the constant trials and humiliations suffered by the singer, her family and other South African blacks under white rule, there are also warm remembrances of families nuclear and extended, of a connectedness to the land, of ancestral spirits and deep-rooted values.

"Those are the things that keep me going," Makeba says. "You pick up the pieces and keep going."

Three hundred years have passed, but the weight of oppression is still on our backs. It has not grown lighter. The taste of dirt, flavored with our tears and our blood, is still bitter.

-- From "Makeba: My Story"

There were signals, of course. Miriam Makeba was only 18 days old when she first went to prison. Her mother had been sent there for six months for brewing a homemade beer -- alcohol was forbidden to blacks -- to try to support her family. There was no choice but to take her baby with her. Makeba was not much older when the terror of police "pass" raids began to be imprinted in her consciousness.

"Those will always remain in my mind because they still happen today -- doors kicked in and parents dragged out, no matter whether they are dressed or undressed. You sit in a corner and you watch the police take them away ..."

Her first singing experiences came in school choruses and church choirs, as well as her first encounters with seditious songs. Makeba recounts one song sung for a visiting King George -- he sped by in a pouring rain and probably didn't hear a note of it -- written by choir director Joseph Mutuba and attacking the bitterness and the divisiveness within the black community. Its final lines were "Wake up my people/ Let us get together because the fault is within us."

Of course, the song wasn't sung in English but in a native language the then-ruling British had never taken the trouble to learn. It was a winner at singing competitions for years "until they got some of our people to translate," Makeba says. "Then we were in trouble."

As a teen-ager Makeba witnessed the transition from British to Afrikaner rule. "British rule was different in that perhaps it was the bite and the blow, what we call egundu," Makeba explains, indicating softness and hardness by blowing a breath and then snapping her teeth shut. "The only difference is that the Dutch are very direct. They say, 'Niggers one side and white folk one side.' The British make you believe that 'if you get an education, you could work yourself up to us.' But you never get there."

Makeba worked as a domestic for various white families, subject to their every whim and manipulation, terrified of being blamed for a mistake her mistress made, knowing there was no recourse or acceptable explanation. She was cheated out of salaries, bullied and degraded ("I must be very careful if I want to survive," she says in the book).

But somewhere deep inside, the voice was looking to break out, prompted in part by exposure to American movies and American singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. In sight and sound, this country seemed a dream world, something to aspire to: Makeba says there was no awareness in South Africa of America's own racial difficulties.

"We saw these movies and so everybody was always dreaming about going to America," she explains. "And we always had the feeling that America was going to come and free us ... Once in a while, it would be said that in the South there are people that are not nice, but only in the South. When I came here I found that it's not only in the South.

"I've never seen such ugliness like I saw in Boston and New York with busing for children. The only difference between here and South Africa is that racism is institutionalized there in the constitution. Even the law is not on our side, so really, we have nothing."

Makeba's musical break came when she was asked to sing with the Gibson Brothers, an amateur group in South Africa; at age 20, she moved into the professional ranks with the Manhattan Brothers. Her first billing, "Introducing Our Own Nut Brown Baby," soon gave way to another title, "The Nightingale." Still, Makeba had no sense of an impending career, much less how far it would take her.

"I was so shocked the first time I went home and said 'Mama, you know they paid me for singing!' Singing was just singing; you sing because you want to sing. For the first time I had money, but I never thought I would be here. Me, go to America or Europe? Ha! No chance."

But the Manhattan Brothers became an extremely popular touring and recording band, and Makeba's star began to rise. Soon, her picture appeared on Coca-Cola billboards all over South Africa ("sometimes in the middle of nowhere!") with Makeba smiling and holding the fabled little bottle.

At first, Makeba was forbidden to sing in English when recording, and she and the other musicians were forbidden to unionize. "We didn't know anything about royalties or rights. We were given 2 pounds 10 shillings per side." Her first English song was based on a bittersweet ballad, "Lakutshuna Ilangu," which told of looking for a missing lover in hospitals and jails (because in South Africa that's always the first place you go when someone is missing). But that wouldn't fly, so someone in the United States who'd heard her recording set new English words to the melody -- words that had nothing to do with the African original -- and "You Tell Such Lovely Lies" became a minor hit. "From then on there was a little bit of an opening for certain things."

Although Makeba did some touring in Rhodesia and Angola, she had no notion of traveling much farther. Then, in 1957, she was cast by American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin in a documentary, "Come Back, Africa." The role would change Makeba's life.

She was cast as the singer in a shebeen, an illegal club where blacks are served alcohol. It was little more than a cameo -- "the two songs I sing have nothing to do with anything" -- but it placed Makeba in a film that crystallized some of the horrors of apartheid.

"Risk? I had an idea because they told me not to talk about it, and the fact that it was done in the middle of the night," she says. "I didn't even know what the film was about. I was just asked to come and sing two songs 'for American television.' Ho ho! I didn't even get paid for this. And they said they were not going to use our last names. Since the film would not have been shown there, my being known at home was not an issue."

However, the documentary -- whose title was borrowed from the anthem of the African National Congress -- was shown at the Venice Film Festival. Suddenly everybody wanted to know: Who was this Miriam who sang like a nightingale? An invitation to Venice followed, then to London, and finally to the United States, where Makeba's mentors included Harry Belafonte (with whom she would tour for years), Steve Allen (whose television show made her an instant star) and Max Gordon (whose Village Vanguard became her first home).

When Makeba boarded the flight to Venice, she had no reason to heed her mother's augury: "You will leave South Africa. You will go on a long journey and you will never come back."

At the beginning of that long journey there was culture shock.

"I waited some time in England for a visa to come, and I was experiencing some strange things," Makeba says, "because for 27 years of my life I always knew I can't go into a restaurant with white people and sit down and eat. I just knew I can't get on a bus with white people. I just knew I'm not supposed to be in the streets in the city after 11 at night. I just knew I can't go into a liquor store and buy anything, because it is not for blacks.

"I'm walking around in England and I feel hungry but each restaurant I look inside, there are white people sitting there. So finally I get back to my little room and have a little two-plate stove and cook there for the longest time. I take a taxi but I won't take the bus.

"One day I was coming from seeing a film, and in England they have these houses with hedges and they lock their gates. I was walking and I saw two policemen and my heart was ..." Makeba's hand indicates a fearful flutter. "I said, 'God, what am I going to do?' I was looking for a gate that is open to walk inside and hide behind the hedge, but all the gates were locked.

"So these policemen saw me panicking and they came and said, 'Is there anything we can do for you?' I said I was lost and they said, 'Where are you going?' I gave them my address and they said, 'No you're not, just turn left and keep going, you're going the right way.'

"And then it dawned on me that I was not in South Africa anymore."

In America, the accolades and achievements came fast. Makeba signed recording contracts, was signed up by the prestigious William Morris Agency. Her Afro hair style and her colorful clothes were much copied. Still, Belafonte warned her, "you must always be careful how you conduct yourself on stage and off, because someday you will have a chance to speak on behalf of your people."

At first, Makeba heeded his advice. But just as she could not keep from singing, she now could not keep from speaking her mind.

"I always did in my own way. When I came here, with all the publicity that I got, people were interested in me, where I come from, how we live. And I always said the truth. I said I lived in the township and this is how we live. I couldn't lie. People say I'm political, but I'm not. I'm just telling the truth because when I say we are oppressed in South Africa, I'm not lying. And if my truth becomes political, there is nothing I can do about that."

Belafonte had called Makeba "a diplomat without speaking"; she soon become a potent symbol of her people's oppression.

"I know I am a South African. I was born there," she says. "It's my land. I have no other. I know I'm a South African who cares about what goes on around me and those who are around me, about my country, because it's my country."

A petty bureaucrat at the South African consulate denied this, with a single impression of his rubber stamp.

"I cried," Makeba says. "When I left home, I did not intend to stay here. I was going to go back home and say I've been to Europe, I've been to America, and share that with my people. I was looking forward to that."

Despite her fame, there was no appeal. "South Africa listens to who?" Makeba says bitterly.

The early '60s were a time of social and political ferment both in Africa, where a number of states were gaining their independence, and in the United States, where the civil rights movement was in full swing. "Africa influenced here, here influenced them, so there was this whole movement of black people all over," Makeba says.

"I never participated in marches or anything," she says of the American struggle. "I raised funds for all the different groups if they ask me, but I was not a citizen to go making speeches. I felt very comfortable talking about my own country."

The talking she did was quite public. She gave the first of four speeches before the General Assembly at the United Nations in 1963, urging a boycott of South Africa -- which then banned her records.

"I was scared, and I still am," Makeba insists. "But I felt it was necessary. If they were asking me, there was some reason. If it would help liberate me, I'll do it. But I'm not a politician, I'm a singer."

And a troubled one. In 1962, she had her first battle with cervical cancer, and the kindness of many -- Pernell Roberts brought steaks to the hospital, Marlon Brando sent a vase of white lilies daily, and Sidney Poitier called daily from Athens -- could not still the tumult in her life. Her third marriage, to fellow South African musician and longtime colleague Hugh Masekela, was crumbling (her first two marriages had been in South Africa). She was in Washington when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; he'd been a big fan, and she'd sung at that famous Madison Square Garden party best remembered for Marilyn Monroe's "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."

Still, nothing prepared her for 1968, when she married radical activist Stokely Carmichael. Suddenly, her concerts were canceled; her television appearances ended; her recording contract with Reprise was dissolved. Some people suggested she was financing Carmichael's revolution with her earnings.

"Sometimes people say I was banned from America, which is not true," Makeba notes. "I was never told I cannot come to America, because I've always come, if not to perform then to see my friends. And I always brought my grandchildren to see their father, because they were born here but grew up wherever I was.

"So nothing was said to me. But suddenly and quietly, everything just went ..." She points to thin air. "Finally I started recording myself and distributing through a company in France, and then I couldn't afford that either, so I just stopped ... My first American tour in 17 years was with Paul Simon last year. In England, it was 14 years before I could go back."

It was de'ja`vu. "I was very sad. I asked them, 'What did I do?' All I did was marry somebody. Just like I left home not knowing they were going to ban me, I married somebody and I didn't know ..." Makeba lets the thought trail away.

Her career shifted to Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Her marriage to Carmichael would last a decade, most of it spent in Africa after the United States became aggressively inhospitable.

"It was awful after I married Stokely because the FBI was on my back all the time," she recalls. "Outside my house, I had two cars always. You see them and it makes you feel so terrible. You don't know what they're going to do, but it's terrible harassment, which is why I left. I felt like they're looking at me even when I take my clothes off; you look out the window and they're always sitting there. You come out to take a cab, you go somewhere, get off and they're right behind you, sitting there waiting for you to come out."

In some ways, she says, the FBI surveillance was worse than South Africa. "At least at home, nobody followed me. And I did not know why they were following me. I didn't know what I did ... It was nerve-racking."

So she and Carmichael and her daughter Bongi (from her first marriage) moved to Africa, first to Dakar and ultimately to Guinea. "I was going to go anyway," Makeba says. "I was just thinking of where to go." Long before that, she'd become the Voice of Liberations, singing at independence day celebrations in the Ivory Coast in 1960, Tanzania in 1961, Kenya in 1963 (she'd sung for the campaign of Jomo Kenyatta while he was still in jail). That same year, she was the only performer at the Addis Ababa meeting that led to the formation of the Organization for African Unity. "From then on I was going all over Africa -- the Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia."

In Guinea she became a prote'ge' of its president, Se'kou Toure', who pushed Makeba to even more political visibility by appointing her to that nation's U.N. delegation; she addressed the General Assembly in 1975 and 1976. Still, Makeba points out, "I am a citizen of South Africa. I am an honorary citizen of Guinea, an honorary citizen of many countries" (she carries passports from nine).

Guinea remains Makeba's home, for now. It is also where her daughter died in 1985, giving birth to a stillborn baby (another child had died in Makeba's arms). Makeba had already taken charge of her two surviving grandchildren, Lumumba and Zenzi (now 20 and 18, they both attended private schools in the Washington area). Bongi's life was marred by decades of mental troubles; as Makeba says, "she lost her mind in exile." The pain of that experience is the reason Makeba has not read her own autobiography in its finished form.

"I have the feeling that if I had been home, even if I'm gone, she would be with my aunt or my cousin or my uncle and so on," she says. In South Africa, "we have an extended family and the child belongs to everyone, so a child never feels lost or uncared for even when the parent is not there because everyone is there to look after the child.

"She didn't have that. Out here, she had no one when I'm gone. I did not want to stay out here, I was forced to stay out here. And that robbed my child of that kind of togetherness that we have at home."

Going on stage to sing is like stepping into a perfect world. The past means nothing. Worries about the future do not exist. All that matters is the music. I live for this ... this is the one place where I am most at home, where there is no exile.

-- From "Makeba: My Story"

Last year, Makeba and Masekela, who had known each other for years before their marriage and remain close friends, joined Paul Simon's "Graceland" tour, though they were not on the album. The tour was an artistic triumph but, in some circles, a politically charged event as well: Simon was accused of violating a longstanding U.N. cultural boycott by recording some parts of his album in South Africa with South African musicians, and of not taking a strong enough political stand on apartheid.

"When Paul Simon convinced me that he did not perform in South Africa, I was very comfortable with that," Makeba says, noting that "his show was officially accepted in Zimbabwe, one of the most direct critics of South Africa." Many who criticized Simon's show, she adds, "didn't even take time to come and see it, and those who've seen it can be my witness, there was a lot said in that show against apartheid. Give us any platform and we'll take it."

The tour also greatly benefited the a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Makeba herself, both of whom signed recording contracts with Simon's label, Warner Bros. "Paul Simon did a very beautiful job in taking the artists that he recorded and giving them a platform all over the world," Makeba says, "a platform that these poor black artists would never have had had he not decided to record with them and bring them with him. These artists got their royalties. So many people go to our continent and record people, or film people, and come and make money and never look back."

All the attention, Makeba says, "paved the way for me to record these old, traditional songs {on 'Sangoma'}, which may disappear someday because we're all so caught up in being very modern."

She will go on tour in the spring, and with Ladysmith Black Mambazo currently shooting a commercial for 7-Up, she jokes, it may be time to renew her contract with Coca-Cola. "There's so much Coca-Cola sold in Africa and I'm the darling of Africa," she laughs.

A few weeks ago, Makeba went to see "Serafina," a South African play currently in New York. The cast, mostly youngsters, wasn't told she was coming and afterward, when she stopped by to compliment them, the performers fell apart in tears. "There were children younger than my grandchildren who were not born when I left, yet they know who I am and what I am to them," she says quietly.

"This new generation is coming out with some very strong statements from home, because they are the product of 1976 and the student uprising and they are saying to us, 'Here we are and we are telling you our story.' They're much stronger than we were, because they are the ones the police shoot at. They've seen some ugliness, those children.

"I'm very much in touch with home because while I am away from home physically, I've always been home in my mind. I try to surround myself with South Africans and I make it my business to know what is going on at home.

"After 28 years, you feel maybe people have forgotten you. But I get letters from home, they send books to Mama Makeba, and that makes me happy to know that I am doing right, that I haven't done wrong to my people."

In her book, Makeba several times points to the things that have centered her life, despite the tumult: hope, determination and song. If she needs reinforcement, she has only to look homeward.

"I look into my country and I see so many women picking up the pieces and keeping on. They give me that strength because, yes, I have had my problems, but I'm not dodging bullets. They are right there. They see their children fall. They see their husbands dragged away. In some cases it is the mothers who are arrested, in other cases the children.

"And yet they still have the strength to go on and on. The children, they shoot them and kill them. When they go and bury their friends, they carry those coffins but they don't sing church music anymore, they sing liberation songs and they run as they carry the coffins. And they come and they shoot them there and they still go out again.

"So why not me? They give me the strength to go on."

And, someday, the strength to go home?

"Yes. I know I'll go home," Makeba says, softly. "If I live long enough. If I don't, then Lumumba will go."