Remembering two iconic women of song

More than a generation separates Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie but today these two women are often mentioned together as South Africa’s greatest black pop stars. Their music was different, their lives were lived mostly on different continents and they both had rather erratic private lives, in spite of all their musical power. But their songs live on; their music is still much celebrated and admired.

iconic women of song DAC
Miriam Makeba

It has been ten years since Miriam Makeba, the legendary South African singer and outspoken opponent of apartheid, died. She is still known today as ‘Mama Africa’ and the ‘Empress of African Song’. Her songs like ‘Pata Pata’, ‘The Click Song (Qongqothwane)’ and ‘Malaika’ – a Swahili love song – are timeless and her iconic stage presence is still much copied by young singers today.
     Makeba was the anti-apartheid movement’s most audible spokesperson during her 30 years in exile. She sold out the most prestigious concert halls around the world and carried the story of the inhuman political system in her homeland to millions of her fans. As reviews often pointed out, ‘Makeba was a natural and consummate performer with a dynamic vocal range and an emotional awareness that could induce the delusion of intimate contact in even the most impersonal auditorium.’
     It was King Kong that launched the international career of Makeba in 1957. The South African jazz-influenced musical, billed at the time as an ‘all-African jazz opera’, played to integrated audiences with Makeba as the shebeen queen of the Back of the Moon, a popular shebeen of the time in Sophiatown. Key to her international success was a small singing part in the film Come Back, Africa, a dramatised documentary on black life directed covertly by Lionel Rogosin. Makeba played herself, singing two songs in a shebeen. When the film was finished, Rogosin invited her to attend a screening at the 1959 Venice International Film Festival, where she became an instant celebrity.
     After 30 years away, Makeba returned to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990. She continued to perform until her death in 2008 in Naples, where she collapsed on stage during her farewell tour. Her music lives on, just as does the music of Brenda Fassie, who died aged 39 in 2004. Affectionately called ‘MaBrrr’, she was sometimes described as the ‘Queen of African Pop’, the ‘Madonna of the Townships’ or simply as ‘The Black Madonna’.

A talented musician, Fassie’s genius lay in her ability to reinvent herself and give voice to the frustrations and aspirations of the township

iconic women of song
Brenda Fassie

     A huge South African and international fanbase celebrated Fassie, who sold millions of albums during her two-decade career. Her debut recording, ‘Weekend Special’, was released in 1983 – a lament about a boyfriend who would only see her at weekends. It was an instant hit, eventually taking her and her group Brenda & The Big Dudes to the US, Brazil, Europe and Australia. This was rapidly followed by several more hits, including ‘It’s Nice To Be With People’ and ‘No No No Señor’.
     In 1990, she released the single ‘Black President’, a tribute to the still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, which was banned by the apartheid regime. She stopped singing in English, declaring: ‘I am proud to be an African.’ Her songs were in Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho. When kwaito emerged from Soweto street parties in the early 1990s, Fassie adopted the genre as her own. In 2001, Time magazine featured a three-page special on Fassie, calling her ‘The Madonna of the Townships’.
     During the last few years of her life, she regularly toured the African continent as well as America. Her death on 9 May 2004 is shrouded, as so many aspects of her life, in controversy. Her family claimed it was an asthma attack, while others reported it was a cocaine overdose. Only one thing is certain, Fassie was much too young to die and both she and Makeba are musical legends, with their legacy of wonderful songs.

To read more about Makeba’s ‘Pata Pata’ and ‘The Click Song’, her meeting stars like Bing Crosby, Marlon Brando and even appearing alongside Marilyn Monroe at the famous birthday celebration for John F. Kennedy; or to find out more about Fassie’s lavish lifestyle and extravagant parties, her drug addiction, recovery and comeback, purchase our August 2018 issue, or continue supporting the arts and culture sector by subscribing to our monthly digital or print publication.