The legendary singer known as Mama Africa has died. Miriam Makeba spent decades in exile singing songs of freedom for South Africa. She was far from home when she suffered a heart attack after a concert in Italy. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this remembrance.

(Soundbite of song "Pata Pata")

Ms. MIRIAM MAKEBA (South African Singer): (Singing) Sat wuguga sat ju benga sat si pata pat. Sat wuguga sat ju benga sat si pata pat.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: The distinctive voice of Miriam Makeba with the hit song "Pata Pata." She embodied the pan-Africanist spirit of the 1960s when she burst onto the international stage and unwittingly became the voice of the anti-apartheid struggle back home in South Africa. On tour in the U.S., Makeba was banned from returning home for criticizing apartheid. She was just 27 at the time and wouldn't see South Africa again for more than 30 years, she told NPR in an interview in 2006.

(Soundbite of NPR interview, 2006)

Ms. MAKEBA: It was very painful for me not to go back home. Mostly it was painful that I could not come home to bury my mother. But, you know, in life you make choices. You say, OK, are you going to sit here, Miriam Makeba, and say, I'm a star, and forget about home? Or do you decide to say, I'm a South African and this is what is happening to our people, and so on? And I made that decision. And from then on, I was branded that artist who sings politics.

QUIST-ARCTON: With help from established artists like Harry Belafonte, Makeba made a new home in America, singing the story of South Africa and the suffering back home and reaching a U.S. audience with her unique brand of music. Makeba was an instant sensation.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Ms. MAKEBA: In my native village in Johannesburg, there is a song that we always sing when a young girl gets married. It's called "The Click Song" by the English, because they cannot say Qongqothwane.

(Soundbite of "The Click Song (Qongqothwane)")

Ms. MAKEBA: (Singing) Igqira lendlela nguqo ngqothwane.

QUIST-ARCTON: Makeba fiercely resisted being pigeonholed as a musician.

Ms. MAKEBA: Don't put me, Miriam Makeba, in a cage. I do not want to be labeled.

(Soundbite of music)

QUIST-ARCTON: Makeba abruptly left America after her then-husband - the radical civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, later Kwame Ture - fell foul of the U.S. authorities and opted for exile in Guinea in West Africa. In later life, Makeba accompanied Paul Simon on the legendary Graceland tour in 1987 and finally returned home to Johannesburg in the 1990s after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Well into her 70s, Miriam Makeba was still performing and recording new albums. She was proud to be a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and also set up a school for destitute girls in South Africa. Miriam Makeba died early this morning after a performance in southern Italy. She was 76. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.

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