Many of today's female singers are content to paint their songs in two primary colors: blue longing or red lust. Makeba's palette is richer: scarlet shades of outrage, cerulean hues of optimism, sable determination. And while other singers paint self-portraits, Makeba, 68, paints vocal landscapes as well. Starting in the 1950s, she helped popularize "African jazz," a melding of jazz with traditional African folk music. In doing so, she helped create a sound that not only expressed her individual spirit but also captured a region's culture and traditions.
Makeba's new CD, Homeland (Putumayo), her first album of new material in more than six years, is a musical love letter to African culture (one song is titled Africa Is Where My Heart Lies). From the beginning of her career, she has been fearless in singing and speaking about Africa. In 1960, because of her outspokenness about political repression in South Africa, the apartheid regime invalidated her passport. "When I came out [to the U.S.], I wasn't even aware that people would think I was a politician or I was talking or singing politics," says Makeba. "To me, I was just telling the truth about where I come from."
Exiled for 30 years, she established herself as an international star, recording with Harry Belafonte (their collaboration won a Grammy), singing for President John F. Kennedy (she performed the same night in 1962 that Marilyn Monroe cooed Happy Birthday) and touring with Paul Simon. Her personal life was sometimes tumultuous--she's been married to South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and American black-power activist Stokely Carmichael. Now single, she laughs and says she is "too old to marry again." In 1990, after Nelson Mandela's release from prison, Makeba returned to South Africa. On Homeland Makeba's music sounds timeless and tireless. The succulent African pop songs are in English and in Xhosa (Makeba's native tongue). The first track, Masakhane, is a stirring call "for unity and hope in the postapartheid era." Another track, Lindelani, is a gentle ballad written for and named after her great-grandson.
On this record and in person, Makeba radiates an empathy that is at once regal and motherly. She is concerned but hopeful about her country's future. "I think our people should be commended," she says. "After inheriting all the problems our government inherited from the apartheid era, they tried their best. Change is slow because there's no money. But the very fact that even after all that suffering people are trying to live together and move forward is impressive." Impressive too that after three decades of exile and half a decade of layoff, Makeba could make music as gracious and giving as Homeland.