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‘Mama Africa’: 7 Facts You Should Know About South Africa’s Zensi Miriam Makeba

Zensi Miriam Makeba, nicknamed Mama Africa, was a South African singer and civil rights activist. In the 1960s, she was credited as being the first artist from Africa to popularize African music around the world. Here are a few other interesting facts to known about “Mama Africa.”

1. Makeba was born in Johannesburg in 1942. Her mother was a Swazi sangoma, a traditional healer-herbalist. When she was 18 days old, her mother was arrested for selling umqombothi, an African homemade beer brewed from malt and cornmeal. Her father died when she was a young child.

2. Makeba married at the age of 18 and gave birth to her only child, Bongi Makeba. She was later diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband left her shortly afterwards.

3. Her musical career began in the 1950s when she was featured in the South African jazz group, The Manhattan Brothers. She left the Manhattan Brothers to record with an all-woman group, The Skylarks.

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4. In 1959, she sang the lead female role in the Broadway-inspired South African musical, King Kong. She made her U.S. debut on November 1st, 1959, on The Steve Allen Show.

5. “Mama Africa” is best known for the song “Pata Pata,” first recorded in 1957 and released in the U.S. ten years later. She recorded and toured with several famous performers, such as Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, and her former husband, Hugh Masekela.

6. She campaigned against the apartheid in South Africa. The South African government responded by revoking her passport in 1960, and her citizenship and right of return in 1963. As the apartheid system crumbled, she returned home for the first time in 1990.

7. “Mama Africa” died of a heart attack in 2008 after performing in a concert in Italy. The musical event was organized to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organization local to the region of Campania.

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Written by PH

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