Miriam Makeba's "Mama Africa" Documentary Must Be "Part of Black History" [EXCLUSIVE]
Says her former bassist Bill Salter
Miriam Makeba is one of Africa's most celebrated artists, but the road to her reverence wasn't without it's bumps. From having her South African citizenship revoked after testifying against it's system of apartheid before the United Nations, to then having her U.S. record deals and tours canceled upon her marriage to Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael, Makeba was a woman without a country, but with a voice.
With the help of Harry Belafonte, a band was formed to back the star -- including bassist Bill Salter who, now 75 years old, appears in "Mama Africa," a new documentary chronicling the life of the late legend. Salter speaks with Loop 21 about working with Makeba, her rocky career, and what message he hopes the film relays to the public.
Loop 21: What will film audiences find to be the most surprising discovery?
Salter: How she was received, especially in Africa. She was respected and upheld as high as one could be as an artist. Also, people who heard her were fascinated by the language and the exploration of what the sounds meant because they were so foreign to the rest of the world -- that clicking sound. I tried imitating it; it didn't always work out [laughs]. It was a combination of Zulu and Zhosa. She spoke about 20 different languages -- most were African dialects. She was the most dynamic person I've ever known. She'd turn around, start speaking to someone else; I thought I was following the conversation and all of the sudden, I'm not [laughs]. I don't recall the translations. I don't remember taking notes. I really probably should have.
Loop 21: Were you worried to align yourself with such a polarizing figure?
Salter: No, when I joined her, she was still a new phenomenon. Her records weren't banned until way later. It wasn't until she married Stokely Carmichael that the curtain dropped. The U.S. was against him. Even though, during her performances, she'd give some idea of what was going on in South Africa on a minimal scale, when she married him, it was a no-no. If she was going to associate herself with him then she had to go. It was just the American policy. She was not accepted in the money-making market here anymore -- not so much because of her, but of what he stood for.
Loop 21: Do you think her career ever recovered from her relationship with Carmichael?
Salter: No, but she's always been a straightforward person and if she believes she's right in what she's saying and doing then -- well, if the U.S. is blocking her from making money here, there are other places to go. She did in Europe. The world doesn't revolve around America. I won't say 'unfortunately' [laughs].
Loop 21: What was your most rewarding experience you had as her bassist?
Salter: I was also a musical director and composer and she sang one of my songs at the Vatican in 1998, by special request that Christmas season. To see all the cardinals in their various colors and the fact that she sang one of my songs, the way that she did, in front of that kind of audience! Also, I was born in New York, in Harlem Hospital. Prior to working with her, I had not traveled anywhere. I was about 22 years old and had gone from Harlem to Brooklyn to Queens, and Staten Island -- occasionally [laughs].
Loop 21: Is there any modern-day artist you feel is comparable to Miriam?
Salter: No. Miriam represented Africa in a way that I don't know if any other human or performer could. Here in the U.S., we have many artists who are popular, but she was the only one who represented an entire continent, not just South Africa. I don't know if any one else can fill those shoes, yet. As slaves, some of our only outlets were our music abilities. We couldn't stand up against politics, but we could sing and make people dance. And we could make the powers that be enjoy themselves, so there was some value there and room to negotiate. I like Beyonce and people who have really classy voices, but I'm not always crazy about some of the material they sing. I'm 75 years old, I like Nat King Cole, Satchmo, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn.
Loop 21: What do you hope to see happen with this film?
Salter: It's our history. We need to know who we are and in order to do that, we need to be exposed to what's brought us along the way. Black history has to include people like her. It helped make us somebody -- we've always been somebody but whatever we can do to remember and celebrate, is what we should do.
Watch Miriam and Bill perform live at Bern's Solanger in Stockholm, Sweden, 1966: