Miriam Makeba was a matriarchal figure in black South African popular music. Along with her ex-husband Hugh Masekela, she was an ambassador abroad for a culture and music that were being systematically suppressed in her homeland. Arriving in America in the early sixties with the assistance of Harry Belafonte, Makeba made a number of hit records, the most famous of which was "Pata Pata." She didn't make much of a dent in the pop charts (at least not here) after the mid-sixties, but she continued to perform regularly for the rest of her life. I can remember going to see her perform a few years ago at Central Park Summerstage, and it was by far the most packed I have ever seen the venue for one of its free shows.
The international success that Makeba enjoyed not only served as an inspiration for South African musicians who continued to suffer under the apartheid system, but also left the door to her homeland's music open enough for outsiders to make albums like Paul Simon's Graceland possible. Therefore, her importance in the development of African music cannot be overstated.
Makeba announced in 2005 that she would be embarking on her farewell tour, but she remained an active performer for the last three years. She liked to say that she would sing "until the last day of my life," and that's exactly what happened. Miriam Makeba suffered a fatal heart attack on Sunday, just after a performance at a benefit concert in Italy. A sad ending, to be sure, but I can think of worse ways to go.