During her time in exile, Miriam Makeba was a neighbor of Dizzy Gillespie and a good friend of Nina Simone, both of whom she would collaborate with. Makeba also married trumpet star Hugh Masekela, who was more than seven years her junior. Nobody did more to popularize Marabi and world music, not even her ex-husband. Mika Kuarismäki surveys her career and takes stock of her life in Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba (trailer here), which screens as the co-centerpiece film of this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.
It only takes about ten seconds for viewers to understand why Makeba was such a popular international star. Her jazz and township influenced music was warm, infectious, and relentlessly catchy. She performed with some of the most prominent South African groups of the 1950s and made an indelible impression in Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back Africa. Subsequently, Makeba went on tour to support her international prominence, only to become an exile who was refused readmittance to her homeland.
Kuarismäki features some wonderfully swinging musical clips, but the highlight for jazz fans will be the interview with Village Vanguard grand dame Lorraine Gordon, who keeps interrupting the sit-down to take reservations. Makeba’s first American gig was a residency at the Vanguard, but it was not long before Harry Belafonte lured her away (the straight-talking Gordon readily admits she would have left them for Belafonte too).
Makeba’s music speaks for itself. Kuarismäki also gives ample space to her anti-Apartheid activism, especially her testimony before the United Nations. She really was a unifying force for South Africans, both in townships and in exile. However, he lets her off the hook for legitimizing some particularly repressive post-colonial dictators. Makeba and her third husband Stokely Carmichael had an especially close relationship with Guinea’s Sékou Touré (president from 1958 until his death in 1984), whose mass graves were discovered in 2012 (admittedly a year after Mama Africa first screened).
Regardless, reports of atrocities at Camp Boiro were generally acknowledged by the 1980s, yet Makeba’s grandson continues to lavish praise on the dictator during several points in the film. Regrettably, by not challenging her associates on this point, Kuarismäki leaves a very nice musical profile open to charges of white-washing.
People make mistakes, including musicians and filmmakers. In any event, Makeba’s legacy is her music, which sounds as fresh today as it did in the 1960s and 1970s. Kuarismäki is a sympathetic biographer (arguably too sympathetic), who conveys a good sense of her art and spirit, even though she had been dead several years before the film was produced. Recommended for fans of South African Jazz and Afropop, Mama Africa screens this Wednesday (11/29) at Teachers College, Columbia and next Sunday (12/3) at the Cinema Village, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.