Makeba rocks Big Apple

2011-04-29 14:21

Forty-eight years ago, Miriam Makeba stood before the United Nations, her voice steadfast as she spoke out on the atrocities of apartheid South Africa.

Her example of courage and strength still lingers in the halls of the building in Midtown East.

But more than that, the late singer’s spirit fills the streets of New York all these years later – even now, three years after her death. New York embraced her back then, and it embraces her still now.

It’s in the voice of the singers Malika Zarra and Lorraine Klaasen, who performed at the Apollo Theatre recently, in a two-night concert called Songs for Miriam.

It’s in the archival footage of a documentary simply titled Mama Africa that was screened at last week’s TriBeCa Film Festival.

And it’s in the memories Makeba has left at well-known landmarks ­peppered throughout the city.

During the late1950s and into the 1960s, Makeba had a four-week residency at the Village Vanguard in the West Village.

She later made a guest appearance during Harry Belafonte’s groundbreaking concerts at Carnegie Hall, earning both ­artists a Grammy Award in 1965 for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.

She performed at Madison Square Garden a number of times – for both the late President John F Kennedy and in tribute to Belafonte. Her history with the city continues today and Makeba’s spirit is alive here in New York.

Recently, two singers, Zarra from Morocco and Klaasen from South Africa, took to the stage for a two-night, sold-out show.
Similarly, in 2009, BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, paid tribute to the singer with a weekend dedicated to her.

Writer and vocalist Latasha Diggs directed a host of spoken-word and instrumental artists (alternative rocker Tamar-Kali and violinist Mazz Swift to name two) who performed in Makeba’s honour at the BAMcafé Live.

The shows at the Apollo Cafe, which is part of the legendary venue that played host to great talents like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, were packed with those who knew, and were new to, Makeba’s music.

The young Zarra, who?put?a?North African twist on the hit Malaika, never had the chance to meet Makeba.

“When I first heard her songs, I was too young to really understand what her music meant.

It’s now, in the last few years, that I have really come to appreciate it.” Zarra has performed in Makeba tributes in London and Paris.

“In this time, I’ve started to understand her music and feel connected to it.”

For Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki, his connection to Makeba comes from a different perspective. His documentary made its US debut at the TriBeCa Film Festival.

“Miriam Makeba was certainly the first voice of Africa I remember having heard in the 60s in Finland when I was young,” he says. “Her music played on the radio, the ones I ­remember were Pata Pata (of course) but also Forbidden Games and some others.

She even came to Finland at the end of the 60s and I remember seeing her concert on TV; it made a big impression on me.”

That impression, for Kaurismäki just as for Zarra, extended beyond her voice.

“The political or non-political statements she made between her songs stuck in my mind and I instantly became a fan of hers and kept following her career ever since.

She, in fact, became the Mama Africa for me right away, as it was through her songs and statements that I learned about Africa, apartheid, among other things.

I admired her for being able to combine music and an ­important message in her art.”

For Zarra, the message has been about how to succeed as a woman in the music industry.

“She had so much courage at that time, to leave her country and make a success of her singing in another place,” says Zarra, who has been living in New York for the past couple of years.

“I know how much it costs to leave your ­country and try to make it again and again.”

Zarra’s favourite song is Khawuleza. “I love the way it’s arranged and sung. I have done my own version of it, and it’s my favourite to perform.”

She says people see a lot of Makeba in her and often ask her to sing songs from the late star.

“She’s definitely still an icon for a lot of female singers today for so many reasons.

Not just because of her voice, but ­because there is still so much that has to be done to improve the way women are treated in the industry,” she says.

Kaurismäki knows about making things happen.

He says Makeba passed away just a couple of weeks before they were supposed to start filming with her in Johannesburg.

“It was a shock, of course, and first I thought that the whole project would be cancelled.

But then, together with all the co-producers and Miriam’s family we ­decided to go on, we thought that maybe the film was now even more important than before.”

Kaurismäki says there are many questions he would have liked to ask her, about both her professional and private life.

“How it felt to leave South Africa as a young girl and soon learn that she was not able to return home any more, how could she handle it emotionally?

Her relationship to some of the most powerful men of that time, like Mr Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando” he says. “And also where she got her energy to keep travelling and moving almost all her life?”

But Kaurismäki pushed on.

“The idea to make the film came originally from the producers and I was invited to direct and write the screenplay.

I’ve been a big Miriam Makeba fan for decades and was of course very happy that I was asked to do the film.

“I hope that people get the ­positive message she was spreading, that it is possible to do good things and even change the world as a single person.

“That you have to keep fighting for what you believe in.”

Kaurismäki’s documentary hopes to ensure that her voice will carry on being heard by those beyond the borders of South Africa. ­

“Besides being a human rights activist, she was just an amazing artist and singer.

It’s important to take good care of her legacy, and this is one of the main reasons I made this film.”
After the documentary screening at the TriBeCa Film Festival and a powerful performance at the legendary Apollo, Makeba’s legacy will surely continue to fill the streets of New York – and beyond.

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