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Voices -- Miriam Makeba, 1932 - 2008

November 10, 2008 | 12:48 pm
Photograph by Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times

'MAMA AFRICA': Makeba's evocative 2005 performance in Los Angeles connected powerfully with audience members.

A spiritual experience

South African singer Miriam Makeba's last L.A. appearance (or is it?) is flowing with style and substance.

Monday October 03, 2005

By Don Heckman, Special to The Times

Miriam Makeba has been called "Mama Africa" and the "Empress of African Song." She sang for President John F. Kennedy's birthday, testified before the United Nations about apartheid, married Black Panther Stokely Carmichael and spent decades in exile from her South African homeland.

No wonder her performances resonate with emotions reaching well beyond the music. And no wonder her fans reacted with a mixture of surprise, regret and admiration when Makeba announced, during a show last New Year's Eve in Zambia, that she would conclude the touring aspect of her career over the next year with a 14-month sequence of programs in 52 countries.

"I am 73 now," she said. "[Touring] is taxing on me. But as long as I'll have my voice," she added, "I'll keep on recording."

On Saturday night, Makeba made what will presumably be her final Los Angeles appearance at the West Los Angeles Church in a Musics of the World Celebration concert as part of the World Forum on Music. And the mood in the large crowd was predictably affecting.

"She's an institution," one listener said during the intermission before Makeba's arrival onstage. "It's hard to imagine not being able to see her again."

Others displayed their feelings with bursts of applause every time Makeba's name was mentioned amid a line of celebratory introductions from representatives of the World Forum and various government officials, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

"I can't believe how lucky we are," said a visitor from Santa Cruz who, with her companion, had become aware of the concert Saturday afternoon. "To get to hear her for the first time, and on this tour -- incredible."

Makeba herself made no direct reference to her semiretirement. But her performance was invested with a rich mixture of elements including what appeared to be a need to express her still-powerful voice as well as poignant references to her South African roots.

Although Makeba seemed, at times, to suggest a physical weariness, she just as often moved with hip-swinging alacrity, especially during the spirited rendering of one of her best-known hits, "Pata Pata." If this was indeed her last Southland appearance, she offered it with style and substance, with the marvelously rich musicality that has been the foundation for her multilayered career.

And for those with hopeful visions of Makeba simply beginning the first in a series of Sarah Bernhardt-like farewell tours, there were the comments she made earlier in the week at a concert in Johannesburg in which, referring to her contemplated retirement, she said, "Do not pay too much attention to that."

The opening portion of the program featured two groups whose presence testified to the expanded interest in world music that Makeba was so instrumental in initiating.

The ensemble Africali included five musicians and three dancers-singers from various parts of Tanzania. Their diverse material, sung in a range of Tanzanian dialects, sizzled with dynamic rhythms, visually enhanced by spirited dancing and an emotional communicability that transcended boundaries and genres.

The Berlin Youth Jazz Orchestra took an entirely different path via a set that owed much to the orchestration style of Gil Evans.

The players, all 25 or younger, soloed and drove the ensemble passages with an enthusiasm and technical proficiency underscoring the status of jazz as a global musical language.