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Afro-Pop Music Pioneer Miriam Makeba

ED GORDON, host:

Today we kick off our look at modern African music. First, a taste of some of the sounds emanating from the African continent.

(Soundbite of African music medley)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Woman: When I was a little child I dreamed to be a princess. When our child (unintelligible) dream to make…

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing in foreign language)

GORDON: That's just some of the variety of music that's come out of Africa over the past 40 years. One constant of modern African music is its penchant for breaking down musical boundaries. For example, even if you don't know this song, Soul Makossa, from Manu Dibango of Cameroon, you'll probably recognize the refrain.

(Soundbite of song, Soul Makossa)

Mr. MANU DIBANGO (Musician) (Singing in foreign language)

GORDON: Michael Jackson used that line in his tune Don't Stop ‘Til You Get Enough in 1979. Soul Makossa had been an international super hit six years earlier.

Modern African music is commonly called Afro-pop. This week, we profile a few of the artists who exemplify the genre's past, present and future. We begin with the singer who is perhaps the single most important figure in modern African music, Miriam Makeba.

Here again is NPR's Farai Chideya with a look back at Makeba in America.

(Soundbite of song, Pata Pata)

Ms. MIRIAM MAKEBA (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

That's Pata Pata, the smash hit from 1967. It's the music of South African singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba. The song is credited with introducing the United States to modern African music. By the time Pata Pata hit American airwaves, Miriam Makeba had been living in exile for seven years.

In 1960, while on tour abroad, she was banned from returning to South Africa. It was her punishment for taking part in a documentary that was critical of apartheid.

Makeba was 27 at the time. She wouldn't be able to go home again for 30 years.

Ms. MAKEBA: It was very painful for me not to go back home. Mostly it was painful that I couldn't come home to bury my mother. But, you know, in life you make choices. You say, okay, are you going to sit here, Miriam Makeba, and say I'm a star and forget about home. Or do you decide to say I'm a South African and this is what is happening to our people and so on? And I made that decision. And from then on, I was branded that artist who sings politics.

CHIDEYA: With the help of folk singer Harry Belafonte, Makeba was able to immigrate to the United States. Belafonte helped her reach an American audience with African music tinged with activism.

Here's a recording Makeba made in New York in 1960.

(Soundbite of live performance)

Ms. MAKEBA: In my native village in Johannesburg there is a song that we always sing when a young girl gets married. It's called the Click Song by the English, because they cannot say (Singing in foreign language)

CHIDEYA: Billed as an African chanteuse, Miriam Makeba became a sensation. She packed nightclubs and dinner houses. She played the folk music festivals and even did jazz events. Yet Makeba sang mostly in the South African language of Xhosa, which was unlike anything heard in the U.S. at the time.

Ms. MAKEBA: And now I'm saying what am I? Jazz? Folk? What am I?

CHIDEYA: She realized that American blues-based music owed a lot to African folk.

Ms. MAKEBA: When I sit back and think over the life of my career, the first jazz festival I performed in was at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the early ‘60s. I said why am I going there? And I opened the festival, and they had me sing a capella.

(Soundbite of live performance)

Ms. MAKEBA: (Singing in foreign language)

And then they had Odetta.

Ms. ODETTA (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. MAKEBA: Odetta came after me and did the work songs, which were done by the slaves that were taken from Africa.

(Soundbite of live performance)

Ms. ODETTA: (Singing) Go to the captain, tell him I'm done…

Ms. MAKEBA: And then Nina Simone came and did the jazz.

(Soundbite of live performance)

Ms. NINA SIMONE (Singer): (Singing) In my solitude…

Ms. MAKEBA: So I was like the first to give the knowledge that jazz came from Africa, that the music evolved into jazz which then Nina Simone epitomized in that jazz festival. That is why I always say: please, don't put me, Miriam Makeba, in a cage. I do not want to be labeled. When people ask me, what do you sing? I say I just sing. I sing music.

(Singing in foreign language)

CHIDEYA: Miriam Makeba also blazed the trail for what is known today as Afropop. Her contribution to African music and her stance against apartheid earned her the crown as the first African diva, the one millions of fans call Mama Africa.

(Soundbite of song, Pata Pata)

Ms. MAKEBA: Pata Pata is the name of a dance we do know in Johannesburg.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. Tomorrow, we continue our African music series with a look at another pioneer of Afropop, Salif Keta.

(Soundbite of song, Pata Pata)

Ms. MAKEBA: (Singing in foreign language)

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.