Monday, February 22, 2010

Memories of Miriam

Back when I was about nine, my family lived in the small suburb of West Rouge, Ontario (which used to be part of Pickering). Our house was located right down at the bottom of Island Road which overlooked the sprawling Rouge Valley. Our backyard was quite long and it connected to the backyard of the Fisher household on Rouge Hills Drive. One day, while I was playing out there, I saw this young black girl in the adjacent property. Since there weren't any black people that I recall living in West Rouge in 1963, I knew she was from somewhere else. When I went over to talk to her, she spoke only a little English and in an accent that I didn't recognize. But one thing I did understand perfectly was when she told me that her mother was a singer named Miriam Makeba.

My parents owned one of Miriam Makeba's albums having recently gone to see Harry Belafonte perform at the (then) O'Keefe Centre in downtown Toronto. (Makeba was one of the guest singers in his concert troupe.) She had one tune on her record that was referred to as the "click song." Coming from South Africa, Makeba sang in her native tongue which contained a sound that resembled a clicking in the back of the throat. I remember one time even putting my ear against my parents' stereo speaker so I could try and figure out what it was and how she did it. Now I saw myself having a chance to solve this dilemma and see her do it in person. So the girl invited me in to meet her mother. But I wanted to tell my folks first. So I went home and immediately informed them that Miriam Makeba was visiting just around the corner. Even though I wasn't prone to lying, my parents didn't believe a word I was saying. But I wouldn't back down. I insisted they phone the Fisher home and find out. When they did, we were told that she was indeed staying there during Belafonte's concert run and they invited us over.

When I met Miriam Makeba, she clasped my small hands in her long fingers and I was immediately overwhelmed by this majestically beautiful woman. She thanked me for playing with her daughter who she said had few friends to turn to when her mother was touring. After the introductions, she gave an impromptu performance in the neighbours' living room. I requested the "click" song because I wanted to know how she did it. Within moments, and only a few feet in front of me, she gave her performance of the song. I was still baffled. What I remember most was being stirred by the sheer power of her voice which rang in my ears. After a dinner of traditional South African food, she signed my parents' album and we went home.

Miriam Makeba would die of heart failure on stage in Italy in November 2008. Shortly after her death, I was telling this story to my friend and co-worker Tony Faure. As I finished, I wondered what had happened to the little girl I had played with that afternoon. Tony said we could probably find out on Wikipedia. While he searched, his face suddenly turned grim. He looked over at me and told me that she had died giving birth. A writer from an online magazine, African Music Safari, informed me not long after that her daughter's name was Sibongile, which meant 'thank you.' "Miriam usually just called her Bongi and they even recorded songs together," he explained to me in an e-mail. "Bongi actually had four kids. The third died suddenly just a few years old and the fourth while still unborn." Losing Bongi and her grand children became a very sad chapter in Miriam's biography. But she does have two descendants.

In memory of Miriam, who effortlessly turned a young white suburban kid on to black African music, you can find a performance of that "click" song on YouTube from a concert held a few years after our fateful meeting.


--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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