Mama Africa

Obit Miriam Makeba

I’m sort of an obituary chaser. I couldn’t get to sleep the other night and I checked the “Recent Deaths” page on Wikipedia, as I do several times daily, and was upset to find that Miriam Makeba had died. 


One of the more sublime musical moments I’ve had in my life was listening to her late 70s album Country Girl with my friend Patrick one afternoon after getting majorly blunted. With playing and arrangement by ex-husband Hugh Masekela, this is really dubbed out stuff. Unfortunately, I don’t own that album and can’t share it with you. The track “Tailor Man” is mind-blowing. Anyone have it?

One of the cool things about Makeba is how smoothly she transitioned to popular music while sticking to her South African musical roots. Here she is covering The Beatles, from her album Keep Me In MInd.


In My Life

And performing the Jorge Ben song “Mas Que Nada.” Who knew this song could be performed in such a somber manner, compared to the Brasil ’66 version?  Interestingly, the Portuegese translation of “Mas que nada” differs strongly from the Spanish understanding. In Brazil, it is essentially slang of disbelief, like “No way, Jose!”  or “Not a chance in the world!” In Spanish, it roughly means “more than anything.”


Mas Que Nada

It is fitting that Miriam Makeba died shortly after singing one of her most popular songs “Pata Pata.” After the heart-attack, she drank a little cognac, which made her feel better. She was surrounded by friends before she died. Not a bad way to go. 

Far off subject and in another time and place, I am reminded of the death of Swiss writer Robert Walser. Walser spent the last years of his life residing in a sanitorium of his own free will. He is most impressive in my mind for his short-short stories. Here is one, translated by Tom Whalen, who introduced me to Walser in high school and was my first writing teacher. This was when I thought I would grow up to be a poet. That somehow being a poet would pay the bills. 


A Little Ramble

by Robert Walser 

I walked through the mountains today. The weather was damp, and the entire region was grey. But the road was soft and in places very clean. At first I had my coat on; soon, however, I pulled it off, folded it together, and laid it upon my arm. The walk on the wonderful road gave me more and even more pleasure; first it went up and then descended again. The mountainous world appeared to me like an enormous theatre. The road snuggled up splendidly to the mountainsides. Then I came down into a deep ravine, a river roared at my feet, a train rushed past me with magnificent white smoke. The road went through the ravine like a smooth white stream, and as I walked on, to me it was as if the narrow valley were bending and winding around itself. Grey clouds lay on the mountains as though that were their resting place. I met a young traveller with a rucksack on his back, who asked if I had seen two other young fellows. No, I said. Had I come here from very far? Yes, I said, and went farther on my way. Not a long time, and I saw and heard the two young wanderers pass by with music. A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white cliffs. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much. (1914)


Walser died on one of his little rambles on Christmas day, 1956, while walking through the snow near the asylum. An appropriate death, if death can be appropriated. For Makeba, who was singing the night she died at a benefit against an Italian underworld organization which had orchestrated the deaths of six African immigrants, and who spent her energies railing against Apartheid, her death is also particularly poetic.

Here she is singing about the highest mountain in Africa, in Stockholm, 1966.  


3 responses to “Mama Africa

  1. Thank you for the introduction to Walser, Elizabeth. A writer I know nothing about.

    The cleated soles and forlorn hat in the snow made me smile; it looks to be a homburg unless I’m mistaken.

    Sometimes I think nothing pays the bills except capitulation. “But the road was soft and in places very clean.”

  2. Well put, ib.

  3. That is an excellent tribute to Miriam Makeba, for whom flags flew at halfmast throughout in South Africa. A well deserved honour, because she was much more than just an entertainer.

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