June 5, 2009

MAKEBA, how we miss you

Filed under: testimonies — newritings @ 12:23 pm

In this posting we feature the story of one genius musician that like so many of us was a victim of racism. What is sad, as musician Gavin Poonan writes, is that many of the media have ignored to remember him, even in passing, when Africa’s lady of song, Miriam Makeba died. They were married once, although I do not think women or men for that matter should be remembered for whom they married. But this was not the point, as Gus tells, that this may have to do more with bad journalism than active prejudice amongst us Black people. Sonny was a South African of Indian origin.

A glance at some obituaries fascinated by her marriages is revealing. Take the one of the Mail and Guardian: “Makeba’s song of truth” (November 14, 2008) for example: it was in part a marrialogy (to coin a phrase), (she did indeed marry a few times and one wonders if men who marry a few times get obituaries written like this?) but having gone down that road forgot to mention some of the husbands by name and character.

When apartheid was introduced to South Africa in 1948, Makeba was old enough to grasp the consequences and to see the limitations placed on the career of her mentor, Dolly Rathebe, her senior by four years. Makeba gave birth to her daughter Bongi at the age of 17 and was then diagnosed with breast cancer, which was treated unconventionally, but successfully, by her mother. The first of her five husbands left her shortly after.

A second marriage, in 1959, proved short-lived. In 1964 Hugh Masekela became her third husband and she went to perform in Algeria and at the OAU conference in Accra, Ghana. Backstage at a show in San Francisco, a Kenyan student taught her a song that would become part of her standard repertoire. Called Malaika, it is a Swahili love song that she was wrongly informed was a traditional composition. In 1966 she earned a Grammy award with Belafonte.

Increasingly involved in, and identified with, black consciousness, Miriam became associated with radical activity not just against apartheid but also in the civil rights movement and then black power. In 1967, while in Guinea, she met the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, who became her next husband the following year.

Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Toure and she returned with him to his own place of exile in Guinea, the West African Marxist state whose leader, Sekou Toure, gave sanctuary to enemies of the capitalist West.

After that fourth marriage ended in divorce in 1978, she turned down a proposal by the president, but two years later married an airline executive and moved to Brussels.

And the Washington Post

She was married five times, including once to Masekela. A daughter from her first marriage died in 1985, and she had trouble paying expenses for a coffin, according to Agence France-Presse. She said she had signed away royalties on her greatest hit, “Pata Pata.”

“My life has been like a yo-yo,” she told Salon in 2000. “One minute I’m dining with presidents and emperors, the next I’m hitchhiking. I’ve accepted it. I say, ‘Hey, maybe that’s the way it was written, and it has to be.’ And that maybe there’s a reason why I’m still here.”

I was surprised that even the progressives did little better on the gender front. See an example:

She was married several times and her husbands included the American black activist Stokely Carmichael, with whom she lived in Guinea, and the jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who also spent many years in exile.

In the United States she became a star, touring with Harry Belafonte in the 1960s and winning a Grammy award with him in 1965. Such was her following and fame that she sang in 1962 at the birthday party of President John F. Kennedy. She also performed with Paul Simon on his Graceland concert in Zimbabwe in 1987.

But she fell afoul of the U.S. music industry because of her marriage to Mr. Carmichael and her decision to live in Guinea.

In 2006, one blog ran this about Miriam and Sonny:

Makeba recorded many 78s with the Manhattan Brothers for Gallotone. along with her first headlining effort, “Lakutshona Ilanga.” This Xhosa song of lost-love became a hit, and to reach an American audience an English language version, “You Tell Such Lovely Lies,” with lesser lyrics was penned. Even though it was illegal for a Black to sing in English, Makeba recorded this version at the insistence of her record company. Gaining experience and skills, and a new found interest in local music, in 1956 Makeba released her first composition, “Pata, Pata” (Touch-Touch). The song was also a hit and part of a major dance craze in South Africa.

While loosely still with the Manhattans, around 1956 Makeba sang with a similar style all-female ensemble put together by Gallotone called the Skylarks. The group featured three other remarkable voices, Abigail Kubheka (Kebeka) and the sisters, Mary and Mamie Rabotapa. She also began extensive touring with promoter Alf Herberts’, ‘African Jazz and Variety’. This was a very popular review, with Makeba, her idol and chief singing rival in the day, Dorothy Masuka, and two future husbands, Sonny Pillay and Hugh Masekela. In general the female singers still mimicked American pop-jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald. This was the sophisticated direction Makeba was taking. Later she would offer a prime example when she scat sang Ellington’s, “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” (on the collection, Something New From Africa , 1959).

So there you have it: women of song, struggling in life as she is in death? She lived a full life, learned and lived for the oppressed and Africa in particular. She broke barriers of race, class and gender. long live Miriam.



MIRIAM MAKEBA, by Gavin (Gus) Poonan

I miss your beautiful face, I miss you Mama Afrika, I miss your smile and I will miss your inspiration. You inspired my mother who was an excellent pianist and a great singer who in turn inspired me to sell my soul to the Music Gods and become a slave to the rhythm. My mother in turn was inspired (and taught to play the piano) by her brother Sonny Pillay who settled overseas and sang in opera houses all over Europe.(Not the same Sonny Pillay who married Mama Africa) I believe that most South African musos are missing her too.

How is it that in all of the obituaries written except one our writers MISSED mentioning her marriage to Sonny Pillay pianist and also a singer .There are lengthy stories written about our Mama Africa and the ommission is glaring as if it is irrelevant – a piece of useless information – not noteworthy, newsworthy, or being reported.

‘Insignificant’ comes to mind but then again her first ‘abusive husband’ was a policeman is mentioned in some of herstories told. Insignificant again when one of our prominent writers and commentators writes : “That skinny Indian fellow on stage by the name of Sonny Pillay” that was all that was mentioned in a lengthy feature about bygone artists as captured by Drum magazine. the Durban Post, etc. (an article I am sure we can get our hands on – featured in Lifestyle magazine Sunday Times about a year or two ago)

When Ma Brrr (Brenda Fassie -this is incredible weekend special is playing as I am writing this) was being paid tribute to on SABC. There were rolling credits and tributes paid to all the muso,s that had passed on in South Africa. There were names like Bles Bridges being mentioned but no tribute to Lionel Pillay one of the greatest piano players in his time in South Africa ironically I think composed music for the SABC as well.

A whole book could be written on this musical giant, a most sought-after session musician, who played on practically everyone’s records in South Africa. He recorded an album called “Deeper in Black” which can be reviewed now, which I believe would still be relevant in this day and age. The Shayennes, The Flames , Madi and the Goldfingers, Ivan Ross, Marsala (was not a good singer but sold a good few hundred albums “let me into your life”) are names that have a history and a place in South Africa it is homegrown. My heart pains at this exclusion, I keep crying: WHY Not even a MENTION?

The reader must note that I take the political self definition Black to include all peoples that are exploited and oppressed by Apartheid and racism in general. But I also believe that we must have this debate amongst Black people in particular and South Africans in general about who is included or excluded when we talk Black or the nation.

The big question thrown up in part by the Makeba story and also my life as a musician and activist is this: Are South Africans of Indian descent being deliberately written out of our history books. The participation of so called Indians or South Africans of Indian descent (or however you want to define it) in any arts or sports is always met with suprise, shock and suspicion.

The polarisation in our country has contributed to the stereotypical perception that other groups in South Africa have of the Indian. We are now 15 years into our democracy and still have these issues to deal with, most of which is downright disgusting.One can be forgiven for the history we have been fed by the apartheid clowns the kind of history where everthing was in favour of how the white man (was the most superior being) and only he achieved greatness. But how can our historians, writers (young people too) ignore in their scholastic research all the information available to make an honest appraisal of the participation – true picture of equal participation in all the arts forms in the country.

Do we do quality research or are are not qualified enough or are we simply biased? This is a shame when one consider that half the writers-journalists, grew up in relatively privileged circumstances and were not exposed to blatant racism and prejudice compared to the what the unsung heroes that I write about were indeed exposed to.

Something that I would like to share with you, something that unsettled me for many years when I was guitarist and co band leader in the group called OZILA. We were relatively successful and popular thanks to a hit record “Lifesaver I’m Suffering” which became synonymous with the struggle, and the song had a distinct handclap that was easily identifiable.

On touring most of the country we always were well received, however being the only member of Indian descent I received ‘special treatment’. some could not believe that I could really play, and on occassion, someone will oome up to me and stroke the strings of my guitar and also tap my microphone to see if it was on like I was faking it. I think this guy could not believe that a Black of Indian descent could be that talented sing and play guitar solos, etc. I’s not suppossed to be, it is just not cricket, cry foul!!!

The reluctance to accept that I was there on talent and talent only -no affirmative action ,was difficult to swallow even among some muso’s. I have been inspired by Kenny Mathaba my fellow guitarist and we saw pass all of the prejudice that I had to face and made a succes of our time together.

What I write about is not fiction but true life experiences. To conclude I say I am a true African and no biased fucking fellow black South African will deny me or my fellow South Africans our place in history. So if you do not like it why don’t you ..F…!!!



  1. hi there it was interesting to note that so called indian artist were never mentioned during the apartheid years.yes i was one of them comming out of lenasia touring the country with richard john smith jonathan butler,a group called the drive abigail khubeka.etc.indeed dark years in my humble opinion there are still lots of indians making good music i for one ,much older and still active as a singer and muscian am busy getting songs together to perform.i would like to hear from fellow muscians who would like to partcipate.note iwas the first non white{indian}to record on an international label at the time polidor records the song mr.lonely still plays on some radio there:

    Comment by ivan ross — December 4, 2009 @ 10:32 am | Reply

  2. In reply to Ivan Ross’s comment…..yes i remember you Ivan, we played together at the Barn in Lenasia in 1968. I was the lead guitarist and vocalist with the Durban band ”The Raiders”. I loved your vocal ability in reaching those beautiful high pitched notes.Ya it’s a pity how so many SA ”Indian ” performers went unnoticed, I believe that I could possibly be one of them, coming from great and talented parents. yes, i played in the old notorious night clubs all over the country as i could’nt get into a decent venues as i was a brown skinned ‘coolie’. I have had the experience that very few musicians have had in this country, playing at most of the biggest venues all over, backing top international artists, to mention Sir Cliff Richard and locally almost all of them,Ronnie Madonsella, Richard John Smith, Lionel Peterson etc etc etc. I was the leads guitarist and lead singer with Music Unlimited, under the leadership of Mario Monteregge, the Italian Trombonist. this was the only truelly multi racial big jazz band in South Africa playing a very high standard of big band music. i am still currently in the entertainment business and enjoying it more that ever, as a solo musician and singer. I sign off by saluting all musicians like myself who had a bad deal in South Africa. Good luck to the new artists….all the opportunity is there…..grab it!!!!!

    Comment by Eric Gabriel — January 15, 2010 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

    • Hi Eric

      I am looking for the Raiders music online to purchase but cannot find any sites…I love all the old songs….is there a place where I can buy them?

      Thanks & regards

      Comment by Ravin — October 19, 2010 @ 9:46 am | Reply

    • Dear Eric- I am a Raiders fan.Can you perhaps please give an History of the band and its origins,members etc.I love your music and have most of the albums.

      Comment by Colin Pillay — August 31, 2012 @ 10:17 am | Reply

      • I am a Raiders fanatic. Just listened to their Live at Waterfront album earlier.
        Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

        Comment by Rashied — July 26, 2013 @ 11:44 am

    • Does anyone know the names of the band members or how to contact them?

      Comment by Bianca Enoch — February 4, 2014 @ 6:05 pm | Reply

  3. Wrt he comment on Ivan Ross. Ivan had a 7single called: Mary, many years ago. Where can one get hold of this song.

    Comment by David — May 21, 2010 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

    • hi david,yes i do have a copy of the ivan ross recordings if you send me an email:to i will post you a copy of my album,kind regards.ivan ross

      Comment by ivan ross — December 19, 2011 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  4. I am so grateful for your blog.Really looking forward to find out more. Much obliged.

    Comment by Ryann Henriques — February 28, 2012 @ 1:53 pm | Reply

  5. I am a huge fan, follower, supporter of our SA musicians and mainly the non white guys that has massive talent but are not compensated. They made lots of white guys rich and then they were dropped like dirt. I truly appreciate the talents of Richard J Smith, Ivan Ross, Ronnie Joyce, Jonathan Butler, The Rockets, Lionel Petersen, THe Invaders, THe Flood, Noel Mitchell, The Flames, The Minerals, The Miracles, Neville Nash, Wilfred Aploon , Zayne Adams etc. I dissagree with the person who said that Masala was not a good singer- The Flood was exceptional and I listen to their album feat. We belong together, Ill be forever loving you etc nearly daily. THey had tight harmonies and made better music then guys like Harari, Rufaro etc… Sorry guys.

    Comment by Rashied Mohammed — June 6, 2012 @ 9:28 am | Reply

  6. The Miracles, The Flood, Substation 6789 were all groups from Pretoria Eersterust and Laudium. They were exceptional with lead vocalist like Neville Nash and Krishna . Marsala was an exceptional vocalist and all three groups had tight harmonies.

    Comment by Rashied Mohammed — June 19, 2012 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

  7. There are some guys planning a Rockets reunion with Bones Delight , with special guest Neville Nash, Ivan Ross and Ricardo or Ronnie Joyce. What do you think?

    Comment by Shiedie — June 19, 2012 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  8. I see Zayne Adams and friends will be performing at The Majestic theatre in Fordsburg on Saturday 2 March 2013???? This is a must as our guys are slowly dying off and very few new guys with talent coming onto the scene!!!!!!!!!!

    Comment by Rashied Mohammed — February 28, 2013 @ 8:27 am | Reply

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