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Mama Afrika: Hope, Determination and Song

In 1987 I went to see Paul Simon at the Royal Albert Hall playing songs from his recently released ‘Graceland’ album. He’d recorded it mainly in South Africa using local musicians and the album had an African feel to it. Supporting Simon, was the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and his fellow countrywoman, singer and activist Miriam Makeba. We were lucky to have great seats near the stage and whilst I can’t remember much about the concert, what has stayed in my mind for over 35 years, was the wonderful, flowery fragrance of Makeba who not only smelt like an angel but sang like one too.

Mama Afrika - Hope Determination Song Anna Mudeka. Photo Credit Gideon Graylyons.
Mama Afrika – Hope Determination Song Anna Mudeka. Photo Credit Gideon Graylyons.

Makeba was born in Johannesburg in 1932 and by the age of 18 she was a professional singer with the Manhattan Brothers. She then went solo and became a big star around the world especially in America where she was mentored by Harry Belafonte. As an activist against apartheid, the South African government prevented her from returning to her home country to attend her mother’s funeral – she was to all intents and purposes, stateless. And that’s where the story of Mama Afrika begins.

The one-woman show is performed by Anna Mudeka, who addresses the audience by telling Makeba’s incredible story. How she married the aforementioned Masekela and then having divorced him, she married Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party. Her stance as a civil rights activist and her controversial marriage to Carmichael led to the US government revoking her visa and she and her husband were forced to live and perform in various African countries. Along the way, we hear of Makeba’s various problems, living a peripatetic life and never really settling. Makeba was a big star with several hit songs and crossed paths with the likes of President John F Kennedy (she performed just before Marilyn Monroe sang the infamous “Happy Birthday Mr President”) and was feted by Nelson Mandela – she certainly lived the life. She also mentions the Paul Simon tour as it was very controversial at the time as Simon had broken the embargo on American musicians playing and recording in apartheid-era South Africa although Makeba supported him when others didn’t.

On a simple set, Mudeka with a number of costume and headwear changes, tells Makeba’s story well although she doesn’t quite have the voice and charisma of Makeba – but then again who does? She sings a number of Makeba’s best-known songs such as ‘Pata Pata’, ‘Soweto Blues’ and ‘Qonggothane (The Click Song)’. She is engaging and draws the audience into this fascinating tale although on the night I went she had to contend with a misfunctioning head microphone which she dealt with admirably. It was nice to hear her speaking without amplification although this was a bit of a problem when she sang as there wasn’t any reverb on her voice. Mudeka also had to contend with a woman in the brightly lit front row, just three feet away from the performer who throughout most of the second act, munched her way noisily through a packet of crips – what’s wrong with people?

Mama Afrika is an interesting play about a somewhat forgotten star. It could do with a bit of a trim as it rambles somewhat at various stages but when they sort out the microphone problem, and the technical people fix the very dark video projections, then Mama Afrika will be well worth seeing as it makes its way around the country on tour.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

The solo theatre show, Mama Afrika: Hope, Determination and Song, is currently touring the UK, selling out venues as it goes. Performed by Anna Mudeka, a Zimbabwean-born singer, musician and storyteller, Mama Afrika tells the remarkable life story of an iconic South African singer, songwriter and Black civil rights activist, Dr Miriam Makeba.

With the support of the Mabeka Foundation, Anna decided to bring Miriam’s story to the stage after noticing that her accomplishments and music remain relatively unknown. The show is particularly poignant with 2024 marking the 30th anniversary of the official end of South African apartheid, and the 60th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial which saw Mandela jailed in Robben Island Prison. Makeba was key to telling audiences around the world about the horrors of apartheid through her music.

https://annamudeka.co.uk/

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