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South African singer 'Mama Africa' dies at 76

Video by Hélène PAPPER

Text by AFP

Latest update : 2008-11-10

South African singer Miriam Makeba died of a heart attack aged 76 on Monday, just after a performance in Italy. "Mama Africa", an anti-apartheid icon, was known for singing in the clicking sounds of her native Xhosa language.

South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, whose music was banned under apartheid, has died at age 76 after a performance in Italy, ANSA news agency reported Monday.
   
Makeba collapsed at the concert and was taken to hospital, where she died of a heart attack overnight, it said.
   
Nicknamed "Mama Africa," she became one of the best-known symbols in the long and bitter struggle against her country's apartheid regime, which for decades enforced racial segregation.
   
South Africa revoked her citizenship in 1960 when she wanted to return home for her mother's funeral, and she then spent more than three decades in exile, living in the United States and Guinea.
   
Makeba, who won a Grammy award for Best Folk Recording with US singer Harry Belafonte in 1965, also saw her music outlawed in her homeland after she appeared in an anti-apartheid film.
   
"I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots," she said in her biography. "Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realising."
   
Makeba had performed for half an hour Sunday at a concert near Naples on behalf of an Italian writer, Roberto Saviano, who has received death threats after writing an expose of the Italian mafia.
   
"She had been the last one to go on stage, after the performances of other singers," an AFP photographer said.
   
"There were calls for an encore and at that moment someone asked if there was a doctor in the house. Miriam Makeba had fainted and was lying on the floor."
   
She was taken to a clinic where she died of a heart attack, ANSA said.
   
Makeba was born in Johannesburg on March 4, 1932, the daughter of a Swazi mother and Xhosa father.
   
She captured international attention as a vocalist for a South African group, The Manhattan Brothers, when they toured the United States in 1959. Her citizenship was taken away the following year.
   
She was briefly married to trumpeter Hugh Masekela, another famous South African artist who also spent long years in exile under apartheid.
   
Makeba had her biggest hit in 1967 with "Pata Pata" -- Xhosa for "Touch Touch", describing a township dance -- but unwittingly had signed away all royalties on the song.
   
She was often short of money and could not afford to buy a coffin when her only daughter, Bondi, died aged 36 in 1985. She buried her alone, barring a handful of journalists from covering the funeral.
   
According to her biography, she also battled with cervical cancer and a string of unhappy relationships. It said rumours of her alcoholism were unfounded.
   
While she was still in enforced exile, she performed with Paul Simon in the US singer's 1987 Graceland concert in Zimbabwe, neighbouring South Africa.
   
She finally returned to her homeland in the 1990s after Nelson Mandela was released from prison as the apartheid system they had both fought for so long began to be dismantled.
   
But it took her six years to find someone in the South African recording industry to produce a record with her. She entitled it "Homeland".

Date created : 2008-11-10

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