BY MOLARA WOOD
On the day that news broke of Nelson Mandela's withdrawal from public life, his country's greatest female singer, Miriam Makeba, was holding court in London with a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Given the circumstances, the giant bust of the Madiba that stands at the entrance to the venue acquired an even greater poignancy.
There was a muted festival atmosphere in the main foyer with people of all races trooping through the stairways and walkways of the building. A wall poster carried a picture of a smiling Makeba next to the words: "Ma Africa is an icon for our times." A black and white recording of the singer in her younger days played in a constant loop on a large screen while chunks of her CDs disappeared in exchange for money at a kiosk beset by an ever-lengthening queue.
The main belly of the Royal Festival Hall itself is the kind of concert space that only a certain calibre of artiste can fill up. Miriam Makeba is such an artiste. The hall finally darkened and the star walked onto a blue-lit stage, a stately figure in an orange and black gown befitting the grand dame she is. She launched straight into her songs, one of which, African Dream, would set the tone for the evening with its refrain: "Africa is where my heart lies."
After some numbers, she spoke to acknowledge the audience and her "colleagues" onstage "who are actually my sons." She confided that she sometimes craves for more children of her own but said with a girlish wiggle: "It's rather difficult at age 72." The audience was charmed and applauded.
Each band member strutted his stuff on being introduced: pianist from Madagascar, guitarist from Senegal, bassist from South Africa's Natal Province and Nelson Lumumba on synthesiser was described as being "from South Africa, born in New York." One of the two backing vocalists was called Innocent, and according to Makeba, he was "not-so-innocent". He took the microphone and sang in a voice that major R'nB stars would have killed for, and when he was done, went over and kissed the star's cheek. Introduced last was the drummer, also from Natal, who got the audience to clap along to the rolling thunder of his drumming. When he stopped suddenly, it was Makeba's cue to replicate the sound with her throat, to the delight of the audience.
Then it was back to the singing with the number made famous by Disney cartoons and European stars as The Lion Sleeps Tonight. It must have touched a South African woman in the audience in the right places because she suddenly injected a shrill tribal call into the proceedings. Another song later, and Miriam Makeba announced she was leaving the stage for a drink of water. "While I do that I'd like to showcase South African youth." This was necessary because "The old girl's going to be exiting soon." Would she be 'slowing down' like the Madiba too, one wondered. In any case she left us in the capable hands of the 'not-so-innocent' one, who gave his all on the song, In Time.
"Siyanbonga, Innocent", said Makeba on her return onstage, praising her backing vocalist for a job well done. Then her mind turned to the triumph over apartheid. "Thank you to all of you who raised your voices against injustice. Without you we wouldn’t be here celebrating our tenth anniversary." The audience clearly liked what it heard. Then she thanked the children, the mothers, traditional rulers and the leaders, "who taught us to be patient. Who tell us that while we may never forget, we must forgive." This led nicely into her next song, Masakani, a Zulu word meaning "You help me, I help you."
"I thought I should sing something in French", Makeba wondered aloud, asking if there were French speakers in the audience. There were enough responses in the affirmative. The French, she explained, have been exceptionally kind to her over the years. The country gave her its highest award, the Légion d'honneur; a flower, La Rose Miriam Makeba, is named after her. Even an Elementary School in Lille bears her name. Therefore, "I have to honour them from time to time." And honour them she did.
Makeba surprised all by dancing in step with the band on Inyar Kuthu Za. From the amusement of some the audience after the song, the singer realised she’d been caught sneaking a peek at her wristwatch. "Naughty Makeba!", she chided herself. Then her dress threatened to steal the show. "The bloody dress is coming off!", she said, alarmed but playful still. Innocent rushed over to fix her back zip, saving the day and the singer’s modesty.
Things got serious with a rendition of the Hugh Masekela penned Soweto Blues, about the 1976 Uprising. A swinging version of the famous Malaika was followed by Mother Africa. The singer dedicated her performance of the song "to all Africans, in Africa and in the Diaspora." The whites in the audience mostly kept their hands on their laps, but children of Africa were plentiful in the Royal Festival Hall and applauded wildly, greatly validated. The singer was not done talking.
"Our President Mbeki never speaks of just Africans, but Africans all over. We just won the 2010 (World Cup). Mbeki and Mandela said it was a bid for all Africa. I was proud!" Judging from the jubilant mood of the Africans in the audience, they were just as proud. "Africans, listen", she commanded. "I am tired of singing this song like no one is listening." So they listened as Makeba called in song for African unity with Mama Africa, written by her late daughter when the girl was only 12 years old.
The concert reached its peak with the infectious township beat of the hit song, Pata Pata. There was spontaneous dancing in the audience but no one, it seemed, enjoyed it more than Makeba, who danced joyously onstage, turning round and round as she sang. By the time the song ended, we were all on our feet where we remained in a standing ovation as the singer took a bow with her seven-piece band. She thanked the audience, the sound men and "the ones who lit us."
But there was more to come, and Makeba performed an old tribal song a capella with her band. She forces her musicians to sing ancient songs because "I want them to know where they are coming from, where they are and to better know where they are going." She called them "youngees" who refer to the likes of her as "oldies" and "dinosaurs", but she declared triumphantly, "at least a dinosaur has a history."
A small child emerged onstage to present a bouquet of flowers to Ma Africa whilst we, a respectful audience, remained standing. It became clear that most people had come to the concert not just to be entertained, but to pay homage to a real trooper. She sang once more, unaccompanied, to her mother, and all mothers, saying beforehand with charming flippancy: "Sorry fathers, we know you exist." Then she swept off the stage, a glorious mass of orange and black bedecked with flowers.
Outside the Royal Festival Hall after the concert, summery London at nearly 10pm looked more like late afternoon, and rain drizzled softly onto the bust of Mandela, who now seeks a more private life. "In time we all mellow", Innocent had sung. Like a few others, I stopped for a minute or so to contemplate the face of the Madiba as he stared into some unknowable distance in the gentle rain.
- Published as 'A Wonderful Night With Miriam Makeba' in The Guardian, Lagos - on Sunday August 1, 2004.
- Miriam Makeba announced her 'retirement' the following year. She comes out of retirement to headline Africa Day on Trafalgar Square, London - on Bank Holiday Monday, 28 May 2007.
- Makeba publicity photo from the London Mayor's website.