Before Miriam Makeba was “Mama Africa,” she was the lead singer—and the bandleader—for a four-woman group called The Skylarks. She had begun her singing career a few years earlier, when she joined the Manhattan Brothers, South Africa’s most popular singing group. Her first recording with them was “Baby Ntsore” (which is on their compilation, the best of the Manhattan Brothers—that high soaring voice is hers!), but her first big hit was “Laku Tshon iLanga,” later released in English as “Lovely Lies.”
The Skylarks assembled in the recording studio in 1956, when their label, Gallotone, wanted to create a close-harmony vocal group modeled after the Andrews Sisters. (Ironically, the Andrews Sisters were at their best in singing jump blues. Call and response or co-optation? It’s the history of African-inspired music, over and over). After a few changes to the lineup, four singers made up the Skylarks: Makeba, Mummy Girl Nketle, Mary Rabotapi, and Abigail Kubeka. The group combined swing jazz and the close harmonies of doo-wop with local South African musical traditions. They were backed on many of their songs by Spokes Mashiyane, who played the pennywhistle with an unparalleled depth and soul.
The Skylarks were enormously popular in South Africa, but Makeba, bandleader and front singer, achieved much greater fame. In 1958, she appeared in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid documentary produced and directed by American independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin; the film won the Critics’ Award at the 24th Venice Film Festival in 1959. She was also cast to sing the lead female role in the Broadway-inspired South African musical King Kong. musician Hugh Masekela, later her husband, was in the cast.
Her prominence led to a contract with RCA in the United States; her first album was released in 1960, as the massacre in Sharpeville, South Africa, became global news and the source of global outrage. Siemon Allen, who contributes to the blog Electric Jive, which focuses on the music of South Africa, writes, “For many Americans she became the single face, literally, of a distant country in crisis.” It was the beginning of her career as the world’s “face of Africa,” which continued until her death in 2008.
“Miriam Makeba on 78rpm (1955-1959),” Electric Jive (December 23, 2013).
Ed Kopp, “Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks: Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks Vol. 1/Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks Vol. 2,” All About Jazz (April 12, 2002)