Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 29, 2009

Makeba and McCourt: Let Us Bow Low to Two Greats

A moment of silence, friends, for two recently deceased heroes: South African singer and human rights legend Miriam Makeba (dead of a heart attack at 76 last November, after  yet another benefit show opposing human rights abuses), and Irish/American writer and high school English teacher Frank McCourt (78-year-old author of Angela’s Ashes, who passed last week).

Two very different personalities with the same life agenda: the artful conquest of poverty, ignorance and inhumane bigotry throughout the world.

Makeba was once married to fellow South African jazz trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela. I saw Hugh give a great live performance a few weeks ago at the free Estival in Lugano, Switzerland. Better yet, I also met him briefly on the train platform the next morning. I thanked him for his persistence over the years, and for dedicating a song the night before to Miriam. His show was the first time I had been alerted to her passing.

Makeba also played with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra in the early 1990’s, fresh on the heels of her rise to prominence  in the last days of apartheid. Those were also Paul Simon’s Graceland  and Rhythm of the Saints years, when world music finally broke through somewhat in the U.S.

Miriam was also once married to major American civil rights figure Stokely Carmichael, of the Student Nonviolence Coalition. She was long-banned from her native South Africa for her very public anti-apartheid stance, and also had frequent non-romantic associations with musican and activist Harry Belafonte. Most of all, though, Miriam was a musical priestess — elevating the entire human race with her courage, poise, and distinctive voice. If I knew how to say goodbye in Xhosa, I would.

Frank McCourt, meanwhile, was proof that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there were “no second acts in America”. McCourt’s books and speaking career didn’t even exist until he had retired from teaching English in the New York City schools. But Angela’s Ashes, his first book, was a smash, and was later made into a very good movie.

I read Angela’s Ashes as a “book on tape”, read by McCourt himself — which added to my investment in him and his work, due to his classic lilting Irish voice and overall charm. Unlike many who read the print version, I found his descriptions of the abject poverty in his Irish childhood often humorous — though darkly so, the way he intended it. (Irish Catholics have always been good at black humor.)

He followed that book with ‘Tis, about his early days in America, and then Teacher Man, about his teaching career in various New York high schools. 

More importantly, though, coming in 1996, Angela’s Ashes was one of the first books in the American resurgence of memoirs by ordinary (a.k.a. non-famous, but fascinating) citizens. Along with Studs Terkel’s oral history work, McCourt’s first-person storytelling is the kind of history we all ought to be reading — not to mention drawing out of our own parents and grandparents while they’re still around.

And as for Irish blessings used at wakes, I’ll go with the standard one: “May you be in heaven half an hour ‘fore the devil knows you’re dead, Frankie.”

Raise a Jameson’s Irish Whiskey for old Frank, and for Miriam –then have another to say thanks to Paul Simon, Harry Belafonte (Day- O!!!!), and sweet Hugh Masekela, who have kept up the fight for so many years. Slainte!


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