Childhood and family
Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born on 4 March 1932 in the black township of Prospect, near Johannesburg. Her Swazi mother, Christina Makeba, was a sangoma, or traditional healer, and a domestic worker. Her Xhosa father, Caswell Makeba, was a teacher; he died when she was six years old. Makeba later said that before she was conceived, her mother had been warned that any future pregnancy could be fatal. Neither Miriam nor her mother seemed likely to survive after a difficult labour and delivery. Miriam's grandmother, who attended the birth, often muttered "uzenzile", a Xhosa word that means "you brought this on yourself", to Miriam's mother during her recovery, which inspired her to give her daughter the name "Zenzile".
When Makeba was eighteen days old, her mother was arrested and sentenced to a six-month prison term for selling umqombothi, a homemade beer brewed from malt and cornmeal. The family could not afford the small fine required to avoid a jail term, and Miriam spent the first six months of her life in jail.[a] As a child, Makeba sang in the choir of the Kilnerton Training Institute in Pretoria, an all-black Methodist primary school that she attended for eight years. Her talent for singing earned her praise at school. Makeba was baptised a Protestant, and sang in church choirs, in English, Xhosa, Sotho, and Zulu; she later said that she learned to sing in English before she could speak the language.
The family moved to the Transvaal when Makeba was a child. After her father's death, she was forced to find employment; she did domestic work, and worked as a nanny. She described herself as a shy person at the time. Her mother worked for white families in Johannesburg, and had to live away from her six children. Makeba lived for a while with her grandmother and a large number of cousins in Pretoria. Makeba was influenced by her family's musical tastes; her mother played several traditional instruments, and her elder brother collected records, including those of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, and taught Makeba songs. Her father played the piano, and his musical inclination was later a factor in Makeba's family accepting what was seen as a risque choice of career.
In 1949, Makeba married James Kubay, a policeman in training, with whom she had her only child, Bongi Makeba, in 1950. Makeba was then diagnosed with breast cancer, and her husband, who was said to have beaten her, left her shortly afterwards, after a two-year marriage. A decade later she overcame cervical cancer via a hysterectomy.
Makeba began her professional musical career with the Cuban Brothers, a South African all-male close harmony group, with whom she sang covers of popular American songs. Soon afterwards, at the age of 21, she joined a jazz group, the Manhattan Brothers, who sang a mixture of South African songs and pieces from popular African-American groups. Makeba was the only woman in the group. With the Manhattan Brothers she recorded her first hit, "Laku Tshoni Ilanga", in 1953, and developed a national reputation as a musician. In 1956 she joined a new all-woman group, the Skylarks, singing a blend of jazz and traditional South African melodies. Formed by
Gallotone Records, the group was also known as the Sunbeams. Makeba sang with the Skylarks when the Manhattan Brothers were travelling abroad; later, she also travelled with the Manhattan Brothers. In the Skylarks, Makeba sang alongside Rhodesian-born musician Dorothy Masuka, whose music Makeba had followed, along with that of Dolly Rathebe. Several of the Skylarks' pieces from this period became popular; the music historian Rob Allingham later described the group as "real trendsetters, with harmonisation that had never been heard before." Makeba received no royalties from her work with the Skylarks.
While performing with the Manhattan Brothers in 1955, Makeba met the young lawyer Nelson Mandela; he later remembered the meeting, and that he felt that the girl he met "was going to be someone." In 1956, Gallotone Records released "
Lovely Lies", Makeba's first solo success; the Xhosa lyric about a man looking for his beloved in jails and hospitals was replaced with the unrelated and innocuous line "You tell such lovely lies with your two lovely eyes" in the English version. The record became the first South African record to chart on the United States Billboard Top 100. In 1957, Makeba was featured on the cover of Drum magazine.
The American singer Harry Belafonte met Makeba in London and adopted her as his protégé.
In 1959, Makeba sang the lead female role in the Broadway-inspired South African jazz opera King Kong; among those in the cast was the musician Hugh Masekela. The musical was performed to racially integrated audiences, raising her profile among white South Africans. Also in 1959, she had a short guest appearance in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid film produced and directed by the American independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. Rogosin cast her after seeing her on stage in African Jazz and Variety show, on which Makeba was a performer for 18 months. The film blended elements of documentary and fiction and had to be filmed in secret as the government was expected to be hostile to it. Makeba appeared on stage, and sang two songs: her appearance lasted four minutes. The cameo made an enormous impression on viewers, and Rogosin organised a visa for her to attend the premiere of the film at the twenty-fourth Venice Film Festival in Italy, where the film won the prestigious Critics' Choice Award. Makeba's presence has been described as crucial to the film, as an emblem of cosmopolitan black identity that also connected with working-class black people due to the dialogue being in Zulu.
Makeba's role in Come Back, Africa brought her international recognition and she travelled to London and New York to perform. In London she met the American singer Harry Belafonte, who became her mentor, helping her with her first solo recordings. These included "Pata Pata",[b] which would be released many years later, and a version of the traditional Xhosa song "Qongqothwane", which she had first performed with the Skylarks. Though "Pata Pata"—described by Musician magazine as a "groundbreaking Afropop gem"—became her most famous song, Makeba described it as "one of my most insignificant songs". While in England, she married Sonny Pillay, a South African ballad singer of Indian descent; they divorced within a few months.
Makeba then moved to New York, making her US music debut on 1 November 1959 on The Steve Allen Show in Los Angeles for a television audience of 60 million. Her New York debut at the Village Vanguard occurred soon after; she sang in Xhosa and Zulu, and performed a Yiddish folk song. Her audience at this concert included Miles Davis and Duke Ellington; her performance received strongly positive reviews from critics. She first came to popular and critical attention in jazz clubs, after which her reputation grew rapidly. Belafonte, who had helped Makeba with her move to the US, handled the logistics for her first performances. When she first moved to the US, Makeba lived in Greenwich Village, along with other musicians and actors. As was common in her profession, she experienced some financial insecurity, and worked as a babysitter for a period.