To be the voice of a nation speaking to the wider world is a tough mission for any performer. To be the voice of an entire continent is exponentially more difficult. Both were mantles that the South African singer Miriam Makeba took on willingly and forcefully.
Despite her lifelong claim that she was not a political singer, she became Mama Africa with an activists tenacity and a musicians ear. She died Sunday, at 76, after a concert in Italy.
Treating her listeners as one global community, Ms. Makeba sang in any language she chose, from her own Xhosa to the East African lingua franca Swahili to Portuguese to Yiddish. She also took sides: against South African apartheid and for a worldwide movement against racism, to the point of derailing her career when she married the black power advocate Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960s. (They were divorced in the mid-1970s.) Even during three decades of life as an exile and expatriate the South African government revoked her passport in 1960 she made it clear that South Africa was her home and her bedrock as an artist.
Her voice, more properly voices, were unstoppable. Always cosmopolitan, Ms. Makeba knew her Billie Holiday as well as old Xhosa melodies like The Click Song, with its percussive syllables, which became one of her international hits. She could sound light, lilting and girlish; she could be flirtatious, bluesy or utterly exuberant. Her voice also held a layer of rawer, sharper exhortation: the tone of village songs and spirit invocations, the traditions that were her birthright songs she revisited on her 1988 album Sangoma (Warner Brothers). Her huge repertory didnt feature strident protest songs but in love songs and lullabies, party songs and calls for unity there was an indomitable will to survive: a joyful tenacity that could translate as both deep cultural memory and immediate defiance.
She must have been an exotic apparition in the 1960s, upbeat and already a star in South Africa, wowing Europe and then arriving in the United States with support from Harry Belafonte. She had already, bravely, sung in an anti-apartheid documentary, Come Back, Africa. In exile she was still an ambassador, showing America and the world an Africa full of vibrant, irresistible sounds: the loping mbube grooves that Paul Simon would rediscover decades later, the flow of African words, the grain of her voice.
Her music was different but not forbidding, especially with her own charisma to introduce it. Before anyone was tossing around terms like world music, she was creating it, making her heritage portable while preserving its essence.
She was never a purist, but always proud of her roots.