Artist Profiles: Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba was one of the world’s musical treasures, having gained international renown as a recording and performing artist and an important figure in the human rights movements in Africa and beyond. She was forced to spend most of her career away from her homeland after an impassioned anti-apartheid speech before the United Nations in 1963.

Miriam Makeba, whose real name was Zenzile Makeba, was born in Johannesburg on March 4, 1932. She started to sing at a young age, in her church and school choirs, and during other occasions. Her older brother had a jazz collection that she really enjoyed, specially singers like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald.

She never had the intention of becoming a professional singer until one of her cousins asked her to join his band, the Cuban Brothers.

Makeba became one of the biggest stars of South African jazz in the 1950s. Swing, rhythm and blues and big band jazz had taken South Africa by storm, resulting in a powerful jazz movement that served as the foundation for much of South Africa’s popular music. In their attempts to interpret the music they heard on records from America, township musicians incorporated their own influences, resulting in a bouncy, original style that came to be known as Marabi.

Makeba first gained notice in 1954 as a featured vocalist for the Manhattan Brothers, one of the most popular male vocal quartets. She soon left to form the Skylarks, an all-female vocal group and toured South Africa as part of an influential variety show. Her big break came in 1959, when she took on the female lead of the hit musical King Kong. Just as she was becoming a household name at home, Makeba left for the US, performing with Harry Belafonte and others. Her song “Pata Pata” was an international success in 1967, becoming the first African song to reach the United State’s Top 10 pop charts.

Makeba’s dedication to human rights and political justice earned her great honors and recognition as a humanitarian leader throughout the world. Makeba was allowed to return to South Africa in 1990, and was embraced by Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement for her struggles in exile.

She was honored many times, most notably the Grammy Award for best folk recording in 1965, and the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize in 1986.

Her records include the following: ‘An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba’, RCA, 1965; ‘Pata Pata’ (single), 1967; ‘Sangoma’, Warner Bros., 1988; ‘Welela’, Polydor, 1989; ‘Eyes on Tomorrow’, Polydor, 1991; ‘Africa’, reissued, Novus, 1991; ‘Miriam Makeba Sings’, RCA; ‘The World of Miriam Makeba’, RCA; ‘Back of the Moon’, Kapp; ‘Miriam Makeba in Concert’, Reprise.

Her published works include ‘The World of African Song’, edited by Jonas Gwangwa and E. John Miller, Jr., Time Books, 1971 and ‘Makeba: My Story’ an autobiography (with James Hall), published by New American Library in 1987.

In 2004, at the South African Music Awards 10, her album Reflections won two awards: Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Adult Contemporary Album.

Miriam Makeba died November 9, 2008 in Castel Volturno, Italy.


Miriam Makeba (RCA, 1960)
The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba (1962)
The World of Miriam Makeba (RCA, 1963)
The Voice of Africa (RCA, 1964)
Makeba Sings! (RCA, 1965)
An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (RCA, 1965)
The Magic of Makeba (RCA, 1965)
The Magnificent Miriam Makeba (Mercury, 1966)
All About Miriam (Mercury, 1966)
Pata Pata (Reprise, 1967)
Makeba! (Reprise, 1968)
Keep Me in Mind (Reprise, 1970)
A Promise (RCA, 1974)
Miriam Makeba & Bongi (1975)
Country Girl (Sonodisc, 1978)
Comme une symphonie d’amour (Sonodisc, 1979)
Sangoma (Warner Bros. Records, 1988)
Welela (Gallo Record Company, 1989)
Eyes on Tomorrow (Gallo Record Company, 1991)
Sing Me a Song (1993)
Homeland (Putumayo, 2000)
Reflections (Gallo Record Company, 2004)
Forever (Gallo Record Company, 2006), compilation


Her Essential Recordings: The Empress of African Song, 2 CDs (Manteca, 2006)
The Sound Of Africa, 3 CDs (Not Now Music, 2013)
Indispensable 1955-1962, 3 CDs (Fremeaux & Associes, 2015)
Original Album Classics, 5 CDs (Sony Music Canada, 2016)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.

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