Miriam Makeba’s Sangoma: A remedy that knows no bounds

The release of Miriam Makeba’s 1988 album Sangoma came nearly 30 years after she had last set foot in her home country of South Africa. In 1959, a 27-year-old Makeba moved to New York to pursue a musical career. Less than a year later, her mother passed away. Separately, South African Police opened fire on a crowd that was protesting apartheid. The event, now known as the Sharpeville massacre, killed 69 people, including two members of Makeba’s family. Concerned for her nine-year-old daughter, Makeba tried to return, only to find out her South African passport had been cancelled.

Makeba, who passed away ten years ago, spent most of her life jumping from continent to continent, dodging racism and dealing with border politics and overwhelming cultural dissonance, making her a self-described stateless citizen of the world. During hertime in the U.S., Makebainitiallyavoided performing political music, but as her rise in popularity contributed to an increase in awareness of apartheid and the anti-apartheid movement, her political stance became more and more apparent. In 1968, that same political passion led to her marriage with prominent socialist civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, which in turn severed ties between Makeba and a majority of her white audience. She fled to Guinea for nearly a decade, during which she remained completely silent. 

Makeba made a comeback when she was convinced to join Paul Simon on his Graceland tour in 1987. Grieving the loss of her daughter due to complications during childbirth, she could only describe the pain as the kind she felt when her own mother had passed in 1960. With that came the release of Sangomain 1988a collection of 19 healing chants performed in a South African style of singing known as mbube. The album, which clocks in at 42 minutes, is Makeba at her most vulnerable. It simultaneously gives listeners a peek into her heritage and insight into the way she lived her life. 

Makeba’s acapella chanting dominates the majority of this album. Traditional African instruments like the marimba and the shekere sneak in and out of each chant, only to be suddenly quashed by Makeba’s electrifying screams. This only bolsters the importance of her voice as the primary instrument, which spans an impressive range. Throughout the album, complexly-layered harmonies quickly swell into aggressive trilling or clicking, only to land on a blanket of a single, drawn-out note.   

Sangoma is a deeply personal album, with Makeba describing it as “…the most personal record I have made,” in a 1988 interviewwith the New York Times. But to a blind listener, it is simply an album of healing. In 1988, it healed the wounds left behind by death, hatred and segregation. Thirty years later, Sangoma still has the power to heal. Whether it’s a grieving heart, or a grieving nation, Makeba recorded this album with the knowledge that no matter the time, place or language, a healing chant is universal and has no bounds.