South African singer Miriam Makeba died Sunday night, from a heart attack she suffered walking offstage after a show in Italy. She was 76.
From the many, many obituaries and tributes (Nelson Mandela released a statement saying,"…she used her worldwide fame to focus attention on the abomination of apartheid. Her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.") the uninitiated might think Makeba was more freedom fighter than musician. This is inaccurate. Makeba said so herself:
“I am not a political singer. I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us—especially the things that hurt us.”
It’s not that Makeba isn’t remarkable. She is. She introduced much of America and the world to traditional South African music, and she acted heroically in the face of a reprehensible system. Her cannon is deep and all of it is wonderful, especially the old stuff she recorded in Cape Town and New York in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Her range, the way she used her voice—from whisper to scream and back again, beautifully—will never be duplicated.
Check out these albums (below). There’s no bad time to listen to "Mama Afriika," but her sound is especially good for mornings. It’s hard to have a bad day after listening to "Pata Pata."
Music Wednesday is Assistant Editor Ryan Bradley’s weekly exploration of great global music, in collaboration with Nat Geo Music.