Brazilians honour Mama Africa

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Brazilians seeking to connect with their African heritage honoured legendary singer Miriam Makeba at a three-day music festival that featured Reverend Jesse Jackson as a guest speaker.

Makeba was banned from apartheid South Africa in 1963 after she had spoken out against the former government at the United Nations in New York. She was also known as Mama Africa and died in November 2008.

Jackson, an outspoken American civil rights leader, had meanwhile fought against apartheid inside his government’s political halls.

Brazilians marked the sixth annual Back2Black music festival in Rio de Janeiro last weekend with a celebration of Makeba’s music. A short documentary film about Makeba was screened before the music started.

Makeba’s granddaughter Zenzi Lee and her son Lindelani Lee were among the festival’s performers. Percussionist Papa Kouyate, who performed worldwide with Makeba for 22 years, played to “celebrate her”.

Miriam Makeba's granddaughter Zenzi Lee and her son Lindelani Lee on stage at Back2Black in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Miriam Makeba’s granddaughter Zenzi Lee and her son Lindelani Lee on stage at Back2Black in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Other artists included South Africa’s Grammy Award winners Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Senegalese singer Ismael Lo.

In his dressing room, Kouyate fondly recalled Makeba’s influence on her band.

“We were her children. We had a cultural education… For us, she lives. Miriam Makeba will never die. We work and we give our spirit to Africa. That is what Miriam taught us,” said Kouyate.

His words turned political, referencing Makeba’s opposition against apartheid wherever she played during her three decades in exile. Makeba returned to South Africa only after Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in 1990.

Miriam Makeba’s granddaughter Zenzi Lee and percussionist Papa Kouyate, who performed worldwide with Makeba for 22 years, played to “celebrate her”. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Miriam Makeba’s granddaughter Zenzi Lee and percussionist Papa Kouyate, who performed worldwide with Makeba for 22 years, played to “celebrate her”. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Kouyate said: “Africa is liberated but it is not liberated economically. As long as we depend on others, we are not totally liberated. She always said we must continue the struggle.

“She had a weapon of the heart. It was not a gun. She used her brains to give a force against apartheid… She loved South Africa. She wanted to get rid of apartheid… I pray to God that Mama Africa rests in peace.”

Lee said she performed with her grandmother “for many, many years” and recalled she was eight years old when she first took to the stage during one of Makeba’s performances.

Lee sang A Luta Continua in Rio de Janeiro, a song that Makeba sang when Mozambique gained independence from its colonial oppressors Portugal. The latter also colonised Brazil.

Lee was born in exile in New York and now lives in Johannesburg. She said Makeba cared for her, following her mother’s death at a young age.

“My grandmother’s gift to the world has been her social and cultural contributions, the humanity she shared with people, her love for arts and culture, African cuisine. She was in exile so she traveled to many countries,” recalled Lee.

“She would make food from different parts of Africa. She loved to cook. She would never make a meal and not make more than what was required.

“She would make sure that you would never leave her house without eating. She said when she grew up she had it hard so she vowed even if she had one little piece of bread she would always share. That’s how I was raised.”

Lee traveled worldwide with her grandmother. Her son also traveled with them and “grew up backstage”.

Back2Black music festival in Rio de Janeiro celebrates Brazil's African heritage. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Back2Black music festival in Rio de Janeiro celebrates Brazil’s African heritage. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Lindelani Lee turned 18 on November 12 when he arrived in Brazil with his mother and other musicians for the Makeba tribute. He said his grandmother’s “efforts moved our country” towards liberation.

“She let the world know about the injustices that South Africa was experiencing. She repeatedly said that she was not a politician. She just spoke the truth,” said the young man.

The broader context of Back2Black was to shift Brazilians closer to African musicians from the continent and its diaspora. Brazil’s history includes the importing of slaves from Africa.

Ndebele paintings by Esther Mahlangu, 80, filled the venue’s walls via video projections. The crowd cheered as each performer presented their own music and also a song from Makeba’s repertoire. Kiosks at the event sold African clothing, Ndebele paintings and books about Africa and its leaders.

Ndebele paintings by Esther Mahlangu, 80, at the Back2Black festival. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Ndebele paintings by Esther Mahlangu, 80, at the Back2Black festival. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

One of the festival’s younger performers, Mayra Andrade, 28, performed at the event for the second time. Andrade is from Cape Verde but now lives in Paris where she records music.

Andrade said African musicians needed to perform in Brazil “to show them we are evolving”.

“Brazilians have a very old style idea of what Africa is. They know about African religion and heritage. It’s important that Brazilians know where they come from and what Africa is today. And it is important for me to show that Africa is changing,” said Andrade.

Mayra Andrade from Cape Verde performs at the Back2Black festival. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Mayra Andrade from Cape Verde performs at the Back2Black festival. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Jackson meanwhile encouraged Afro-Brazilians to push for equality in a society where most blacks are descendants of slaves and face racial discrimination.

“The goal of our movement was not freedom. It was equality. You can have freedom to get on the soccer field but if the referee is on the side of the other team all the time you will never win,” he told Brazilians at the festival.

American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson at the Back2Black music festival in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson at the Back2Black music festival in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

“Equality is this generation’s challenge. Look for people who share the same values and fight that fight together. We must fight us a shared coalition. That makes us the majority. At the end of the day, coalitions win.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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