Yes, I’ve had romantic liaisons in Nigeria
It does not matter what part of Africa you come from, or whether you feel jealous that everything good about Africa in recent years has found a way of attaching itself to South Africa, when the name 'Mama Afrika' is mentioned, it only refers to one woman – MIRIAM MAKEBA.
And yes! she is South African – like Mandela, Mbeki, SuperSports, Sun City, Sin City and all those exotic tourist places. Forget that the South Africa that has today appropriated this African icon is the same country from which she was exiled for 31 years.
Yes, the same South Africa that would not even let her return home to bury her mother.
But while South Africa would not touch her with a mile-long pole, the rest of us Africans (and the world) adopted her and at one time in her life, she carried the international passports of Ghana, Guinea, Tanzania, Algeria, Sudan Liberia, Mauritania and even Cuba at the same time.
Of course she generously rewarded us all. Makeba performances were a regular feature at independence and national day celebrations, as African countries emerged from the yoke of colonialism one after the other.
She was also there to perform at birth of the OAU. Her classic Malaika, is still the subject of controversy between Kenya and Tanzania – with each claiming that the song was originally from their country. It has never mattered to the Kenyans that Makeba herself begins the song by saying: “Now, let us take you to Tanzania”.
I don't sing politics
Incidentally, Makeba insists she does not sing politics, even as her name resonates from every part of the world as freedom fighter and apostle of good governance and equal treatment of all humans. “I sing the truth. But if the truth now happens to be politics, halleluyah!”, Makeba insists.
Of course it was the political flavour of her songs that made the Apartheid regime in South Africa exile her away from home and, outside South Africa, avoid her like some dreaded plague.
But all the pains and heartache of the apartheid era are behind her now, even though the 74-year old great grand mother says the hurt remains one of her biggest regrets in a musical career that has spanned over half a century and taken her to virtually every corner of God's earth.
The other regrets might be gleaned from the advice she readily gives to young and upcoming artistes. It has to do with marriage. It springs from her handful of failed marriages. “I have been married more than once and I know it's not funny... Get married and stay married…Choose your starter pack right the first time so you wouldn't have to drop it or choose again”.
Apart from marrying right and staying married, Makeba advises younger artists to stay away from drugs and excessive consumption of alcohol. “I did not take alcohol until I was a really grown woman…I take alcohol now (laughs)…but it is not good to over indulge in it”
On the world stage
At 74, Makeba looks back at her illustrious career and tells a crowded press conference at Cape Town's City Sun hotel, “I think I have been very lucky… and I thank my God and my ancestors for all the favours”.
She has met all the African presidents that mattered – even reportedly married one of them (Late Sekou Toure of Guinea). Just think of any global musical event and Makeba has been there to perform from Berlin to New Orleans, Los Angeles, Venice, Sweden, Brazil Venezuela, Cuba, Australia,FESTAC 77, France, United, just anywhere.
She somewhat became a citizen of the world and in the process, raked in all manner of awards. In 1966, she became the first African to win a Grammy for her work.
She has stared in a few film flicks, done a handful of commercials and several endorsements, made some money, lived well, had almost the best of everything. Again, she gives the glory to God and her ancestors.
Back to her roots
It was only natural that the chicken would eventually come home to roost and that was what Makeba did with her native South Africa and the 5th Cape Town International Jazz Festival that ended April 1, 2006. It was tagged her Grande Finale Tour. And as Mama Africa told her enamoured audience at the Kippies stage of the Cape Town international Convention Centre, she would henceforth play only “special shows for special money”.
Luckily for Nigerians, one of those special shows is billed for Abuja sometime between the 26th and the 28th of this month. Thereafter there is Scandinavia, Amsterdam, Berlin, Wolfsburg.
Makeba who is already looking forward to the Nigerian event says it is the first time she'll be returning to the country after FESTAC 77 – sweet memories of which still linger in her very sharp mind. Now, that sharp mind would be the topic of another discourse but it is unbelievable that Makeba who confesses that a few names and faces have been wiped off her memory by age would begin the story of every performance she's ever made with date, time and venue – including all the other minor details. Now, that is major for a woman whose first great grandchild is already 10 years old.
My Nigerian lover
Till date, Makeba remains a United Nations FAO ambassador and has also been appointed South Africa's Goodwill Ambassador by President Thabo Mbeki.
Although she remained unfazed all through the media chat, one question that really saw her forgetting to close her mouth was that which tended to take her back to her rumoured romance in Nigeria, when she was said to have come close to marrying a Nigerian. It was one issue she never expected would crop up again, let alone in South Africa.
But after a brief spell of the off-guard moment, Mama Afrika recollected herself and chose her response carefully: “Well, I won' t say there were not Nigerian admirers. There were but they never declared (their interest)”. So, with so much time now on her hands, what will Miriam Makeba be doing in her partial retirement? She says she's going to devote more time to the Makeba home for girls. She would have loved to also start a music school “but you see, I am not a learnt musician”. She still describes musical strokes and writings as cobsticks.
While many musicians go on special diets, take certain drugs, go through certain routines to maintain their voice, Makeba does none of those. She just wakes up, eats normal food and sings.
Hers, she says, is just God-given talent – which explains why she does not even know what brand of music she plays – Jazz, funk, pop or whatever. “I am just a singer”.
Makeba would have loved to do a lot more but says she does not have much money of her own, that she's a billionaire only in goodwill and follwership. That if she had the money, she'd like to build a home for girls in each of every South African province. But even without money, she still hopes to give it a shot by looking for ways of co-opting other sponsors into the project.
Seeing her leaving the press conference venue, you'd think Miriam Makeba might not make the next day. She walked to the elevator hemmed between a grand daughter and an official of the jazz festival's publicists. She could barely walk without their support. She was supposed to be tired physically. But there was a spark in her eyes that suggested that the spirit was far from being tired.
She confirmed just that some nine hours later when she mounted the stage at Kippies. For more than an hour an a half, the woman who is arguably Africa's biggest music export thrilled and thrilled the audience in the packed hall over and over again.
And for all of that time she stood, moved and gyrated in those telling dance steps that are typically hers. Typically South African – a little slower, no doubt, but still there all the same. The only break was when she stepped aside to let her granddaughter (a chip off the old block) do a number that lasted for about seven minutes and she was back again. And after she had done her bit, the audience would not let her go. They screamed for more. She obliged them with two more numbers – a bonus 25 minutes.
She's still got the vibe – which explains why even she says it's too hard to say goodbye. But even if the spirit is willing, that spirit is in a body that is singing a different tune.
Of course the 2006 Cape Town International Jazz Festival was not about Makeba alone. It was also about Thandiswa Mazwai, the reigning female act from South Africa in whom even Makeba herself sees a new Makeba with modern touch.
There was also the never-say-die Manu Dibango, Louie Vega, Freddy Cole (younger brother of the legendary Nath King Cole, Jose Feliciano, Chuco Valdes, Winston Mankunku, Andy Hamilton, Richard Bona, Omar Sosa, Sipho 'Hotstix' Mabuse, Tina Schouw, Relax, Unofficial Language, The Moreira Project, Monty Alexander and a host of others. It was also an opportunity for South Africa to restate its claim as Africa's topmost tourist destination and a major contender for the world's top slot.