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Life of a South African Singer : MAKEBA My Story by Miriam Makeba with James Hall (New American Library: $18.95; 249 pp.)

February 07, 1988|Lawrence Christon | Christon is a Times staff writer.

Even if she hadn't become an internationally known singer, Miriam Makeba's life would have been one of extraordinary courage and suffering. She's been exiled from her South African homeland. She's been beaten and betrayed in marriage. She licked cancer. She suffered the death of her partially deranged only daughter. Her early sponsor and champion, Harry Belafonte, turned his back on her over a misunderstanding that was apparently never rectified. Her anti-apartheid statements made her a political target at home, and her marriage to Black Panther Stokely Carmichael made her a political pariah in the United States, France and British Commonwealth. Her mystical belief in the regenerative (and destructive) force of the spirit world has given her a religious conviction that is deeply rooted in her history and not the least bit didactic.

But "Makeba: My Story," is a deadeningly artless book just the same, characterized more by what's been left out than what's been put in, and by a rhetorical sterility of observation.

It begins with her childhood and her notes on local customs (her parents brewed beer illegally to make ends meet). It continues through her first marriage (she was pregnant at 17), her first-hand experience of the universal humiliation with which white South Africa scourges its blacks daily, both in law and common practice (Makeba worked as a domestic). Finally it arrives at the pleasurable discovery of her singing voice, whose joyousness and spring is apparent to observers from the start.

A small role in the movie "Come Back, Africa" and her sponsorship by Belafonte insure her international reputation, to which the South African government responds with a permanent ban of her citizenship. Her relationship with Carmichael gets her into further trouble here, and she takes up residence in Guinea under the paternal eye of President Sekou Toure, who offers her a quasi-diplomatic role at home and throughout Africa, extending even to the United Nations.

Makeba's modesty, pain and innate good-heartedness permeate her memoir. So does her ingenuousness (when Carmichael's amatory interests stray, she notes that "men are known to be naughty"). It's almost inconceivable, for example, that just because she says she's nonpolitical she could assume that there would be no social implications to her marriage to Carmichael--by necessity no one is more politically circumspect than the South African black. And of an earlier period she writes, "My appearance before the U.N. Special Committee changes my life, or at least the way people think of me. The person Miriam Makeba is no longer just an African singer to them. I am a symbol of my repressed people." By the time she hooked up with Carmichael, the United States had become, once again, a shamefully dangerous place for the outspoken black. It's hard to believe the extent to which this seems to have taken her unawares.

Hardly anyone who pretends to justice would quarrel with Makeba's frequent anti-apartheid orations. But they're phrased in such a way that they will glaze the eye of anyone who has picked up a newspaper or magazine in the last several years and read even cursorily about South Africa. Who would disagree with her contention that "If . . . every man and woman is an object of wonder and joy in the heart of the Superior Being, then it is not too much to expect that some day all wrongs will be righted, and justice will prevail"? But who would pay $19 for this piety while the inner life of one of the most celebrated international performers of the past 30 years remains hidden?

The book's photos, which show the toll the years have taken on Makeba, tell infinitely more about her than its simplistic text. So would any one of her albums. She's one of those rare singers whose very soul rings in her voice. But not in her book.

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