Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 21, 2017

Mama Africa

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

If “Mama Africa”, the fine new documentary about Mariam Makeba, was nothing more than a compilation of her performances going back to the songs she sang in Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” in 1959, it would be well worth seeing. But it is more than that. It is a portrait of a leading Pan-African activist who deserves to be ranked alongside Paul Robeson as a tireless fighter for human rights for all people.

In a way, Rogosin’s film launched her career as a freedom fighter since everybody involved with it understood the risks they were taking. She only appeared briefly on stage, and sang two songs lasting four minutes but made such an impression on those who saw “Come Back, Africa” that she was invited to perform in London and New York, where she met and impressed Harry Belafonte who had by now established himself as an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow. He helped her get her first recordings made, “The Click Song” that was based on the highly percussive Xhosa language and “Pata Pata”, a dance tune she considered superficial.

One of the things that struck me about early her professional history is how much it overlapped with the folk music revival that to a large extent relied on great musicians like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte who had been part of the Communist Party’s cultural milieu. Songs like “Wimowe” (The Lion Sleeps at Night) were often performed side-by-side with “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome”. By 1959, the battle against Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa were closely linked in the minds of young people like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mariam Makeba was not in South Africa when the Sharpesville Massacre occurred a year later. She was anxious to attend the funerals of two family members were victims of the racist cops but discovered that her passport had been revoked. Like Paul Robeson, she had become an unperson. Because of the massacre and the violation of her right to travel freely, Makeba became even more outspoken and dedicated to eliminating apartheid.

Indeed, the film is social history as well as a personal history of Marian Makeba. As the Civil Rights movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, Makeba’s path crossed that of Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC who had coined the term Black Power and become a leading Black nationalist and afterwards a Pan-Africanist who adopted the name Kwame Ture. After Carmichael and Makeba married in 1968, her songs took on a sharper political edge and were performed at rallies in the USA and Africa.

The film benefits from interviews with some of the key people who knew her as fellow musicians or activists. We hear from her bass player and drummer from the early 60s who offer thoughtful assessments of her as a person and a musician. She was beloved by everybody, especially for her readiness to prepare an elaborate meal on a moment’s notice. We also hear from her grandson Nelson Lumuba Lee who fleshes her out as a personality. He states that the accidental death of another grandson at a young age from accidentally swallowing some pills left her disconsolate and probably made performing and activism more difficult, especially as she grew older.

Makeba was able to return to a free South Africa in 1990 and became an enormous influence on younger female vocalists who pay tribute to her in the film. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the impact she had on African music and politics. It must be said, however, that Hugh Masekela, her most famous collaborator has a dim view of South Africa today, describing it as a neo-colonial state dominated from the West and the East.

“Mama Africa” was directed by Mika Kaurismäki, the older brother of Aki Kaurismäki—my favorite director. Mika directed a wonderful film titled “The Girl King” that I also recommend highly. It is the story of the lesbian Queen of Sweden who was tutored by Descartes—no that is not fiction! It can be seen for a mere $1.99 on Youtube.

Unfortunately, a disabled Macbook prevented me from posting this review until today but I urge my readers to try to attend a screening as indicated below:

Parkway Theater, Baltimore – 8/18 to 8/24

Austin Film Society – 9/23 & 9/30

Virginia Film Festival – 11/10 & 11/12

IFC, New York City –1/19/18 to 1/25/18

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto – 2/27/18

I would also advise checking the distributor’s website to check about other screenings.

1 Comment »

  1. Ok, Hugh Masekela has a point, but you also have to acknowledge the achievements made since 1994, access to healthcare, electricity, housing, education and clean water has increased enormously. This is important. The black ‘middle-class’ is also now numerically larger, by a big margin, than the white. This too must count as progress.

    Of course, it’s also undoubtedly true that development has been greatly impeded by the ANC’s enduring love affair with neoliberalism.

    It’s also true that South Africa is currently sinking into a political mess.

    The governing party, so far as I can tell, is caught up in an internal struggle between the neoliberals and the crass crony-capitalists. As for opposition politics, it’s the centre right vs. the Chavismo ethnic nationalists. The media support the right and neoliberals while also giving the ethnic nationalists Trumpian levels of airtime.

    The Workers And Socialist Party (WASP!?), who organize around South Africa’s mining belts, did contest the last election, but got less votes, literally, than a guy who claimed he could power the electric grid by activating ancient standing stones. Oh, joy.

    God bless Africa (that’s a sincere prayer).

    P.S. If anyone’s thinking of visiting, please do…. friendly people, great food, music, history, art, nature and an appealing exchange rate.

    Comment by DPdownSouth — August 22, 2017 @ 9:13 am


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