You Still a Black Queen, Mama
Fate’s a bitch ain’t it? I mean here we are. Celebrating what the magic realist, essayist, poet, and literary seer of sorts Ben Okri, regards as “probably the first great historic moment with a positive charge in the 21st Century.”
The man you are bound to hear about and from, possibly for the next coming hundred years, eight of which, straight from Capitol Hill, or somewhere about.
And then what happens? That beautiful, healer, diva, sizzler Miriam goes on die on us.
I’m like, what, Mama? Why did they ask you to perform in an anti-Mafia concert in the first place when the Mafia had issued out death threats to all performers and attending audience in the South of Italy? Doesn’t matter now.
A person of resolve and artist of extraordinary conviction and passion, you went to Italy, even when you were supposed to have retired by now, and performed to your heart and the audience’s content even when your life was in danger, Mama.
Look, Mama; you are gone but you are still with us and I know I’m speaking for many when I say, you will still be with us for generations to come.
Yours was a sound straight from humanity, religion and the healers hearts.
Yours was a voice somehow trapped between that of a pure, sinless child and a wise, old and experienced soul to whom mere age was but just a number. You could have been 5OO years old and living in the mountains, for all I care. And I do.
Your voice conveyed the spirit and message from the world beyond. The world that came before us and which await us in the beyond. But also, yours was a voice of those not quite born.
I am not one of those fakes who’ll just heap praises when you are no longer here, unafraid of telling it up straight when you were able to respond for yourself. I cannot lie, that yours was my all time favorite, or your entire body of work got my heart pumping, cause it didn’t.
Not all of it, at least. And that’s ok. Show me any artist who can fulfill all of their fans and critics’ yearning for love, insecurities, idealism, and that old perception of what a helluva written and performed should sound like.
Sometimes we fans and critics expect a lot from artists. Sometimes the impossible.
I know that’s childish. Churlish, even. Too “bad”- as in too beautiful: that’s the emotional pact the artist signs with us, the minute they walk on stage or slam their vocals down in the studio. Too bad. Too unfortunate. This love we extract from you. But you applied for the job, we didn’t.
Same applies to you. I loved you smacks and was even more critical of you. On all those moments of despair and neediness on my part, you fulfilled me to my wildest un-expectations. Like a lot of young black South Africans, I saw you, Hughie, Katse Semenya, Jonas Gwangwa and Letta Mbuli among others, as our true liberators when our leaders were in jail. They tried to silence your voice, but we smuggled and exchanged your cassettes and LPs on the underground in the townships.
Even as I write this, I can hear your teary voice on songs LPs such as Evening With Harry Belafonte, your live performance at Au Theatres Des Champs Elysees in Paris- which in my head matches Mack The Knife: Ella Live in Berlin, or better still, Ella Does The Cole Porter Song Boo !
I can go on and on. Talk about possibly – for me your most haunted and emotion demanding pieces, way beyond the level of classics, particularly the Katse Semenya produced album, A Promise.
Often, I would like to fancy myself a blues connoisseur. . .you understand the topography: Mississipi to Timboctou. Blind Willie Dixon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Howling Wolf, Bessie Smith, up to Nina Simone, Johny Cash, Ali Farka Toure, Lobi Traore, night crawlers who could elicit a painful scream of a slide guitar, mimic a lovers’ moan, replicate the sounds of blackness that refuses to be defined only by slavery and n’ver do-good hipsters in it.
And yet, I’d never ever imagined you as a blues torch singer, until that day after my own momma Nomvula got wheeled six feet under, that rainy February day 1991. Too numb to cry, I rushed to a friend’s backyard shack in the village, and buried myself in your songs back to back. The symphonic strains of your wails!
Did I say you weren’t my favourite voice? “ Compared To What ?” Brothers Les McCarn and Eddie Harries would have asked. Better still, “So What?”
There’s A Promise, you comforted me. There’s a city, Gauteng, known for swallowing men and children, never to come back, you told me. But also you cautioned me to Quite It now. And when the tears rolled down my cheeks, you winked at me: Show Me The Way, My Brother.
But then I had to myself the way first. The way. Our way.
Many moons later, we met. You cooked for me. Reprimanded me. You told me personal, intimate tales about a cast of other tortured beauties: Nina, Nakassa, Hughie, Stokely, Coltrane, Aretha, Dolly, about Tsietsi, about your late and only daughter, Bongi.
And then you wept. Gave me a hug. And dished for me.
I left dizzier with love. Giddier with the sound of music in my head: Mas Que Nada, I remember. And I felt calmer. Slightly. I wrote the story. You became both upset and ecstatic. Then I met you in Lagos, a city on perpetual boil. You called me around, whiling away time at the airport. Ordered me on your lap.
“Sit ! ” you mock commanded. “Tell me, what’s new, what are the young artists doing?”
I mumbled something. Bit my lip. What exactly is it that I could have told you, other than, I love you, Mama?