As the fortunes of people change, the music that propels them lives on to both remind and inspire. That is the abiding takeaway from Mika Kaurismäki’s appealing 2011 documentary “Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba,” about the late, internationally renowned singer from Johannesburg, South Africa, whose decades-long banishment from her apartheid-ravaged homeland informed her art, while her sweet, soaring voice and infectious performance style created fans by the millions. (She died in 2008.)
The movie briskly traces her trajectory from girl-group standout in the townships to exiled jazz darling in America, after which she toured the world, bringing her rhythmic, passionate message of black liberation and African independence. (“I do not sing politics, I merely sing the truth,” she’d often say.)
Though the director (whose older brother is Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki) doesn’t always have the firmest grasp on marrying her achievements to a resonant timeline, there is a surfeit of lively concert/interview footage to augment the warm remembrances of colleagues and loved ones (ex-husband Hugh Masekela, various band members, granddaughters Nelson and Zenzi) and testimonials from young singers who cite Makeba’s strong influence as a consciousness-raising artist.
What ultimately stands is a portrait of a woman for whom the term “cultural ambassador” was meant, whose dynamic range and earth-wide smile made the words and sounds pouring from her like a hand extended, a heart exposed, a story of the world made achingly real.
‘Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba’
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles