SOUTH AFRICA: Pata Pata - Miriam Makeba
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Makeba shows herself to be multi-talented, not only leaving behind a legacy as a feminist icon who fought hard for racial equality but also a sublime music artist
Miriam Makeba’s moniker ‘Mama Africa’ secures her a place in the pantheon of great world music nicknames alongside the likes of ‘Barefoot Diva’ Cesária Évora, the ‘Golden Voice of Africa’ Salif Keita and ‘King of Apocalyptical Cabaret’ Boris Kovač. Yet, it is not the moniker itself that makes her special, but rather her life’s work which earnt her such an esteemed term of endearment. It is fair to say that Makeba was much more than simply an incredible singer. In a political sense she was a UN ambassador, a civil rights activist and an anti-apartheid advocate. As such, Makeba became a phenomena across the globe, as her reputation transcended most artists of her immense quality.
“...due to the fact that the political realities of apartheid were grim, this obviously became the content of much of her music and as such her music was seen as dangerous by the powers in charge at that time.”
Having grown up in a black township called Prospect, near Johannesburg, Makeba had to face the harsh reality of life from the beginning with her mother being imprisoned less than three weeks after her birth. After her father's death when she was only aged six she was forced to find work before marrying an abusive husband at the age of 17 just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This eventful and challenging childhood alone informed a lot of her music as she would often write about painful happenings in life. In fact, it was because of her decision to convey the sometimes bleak but truthful realities of life that led her to be characterised as a political singer. She disputed this, believing that she was simply singing about the world around her, however, due to the fact that the political realities of apartheid were grim, this obviously became the content of much of her music and as such her music was seen as dangerous by the powers in charge at that time.
At the end of the 1950s, due to her inclusion in a wildly successful feature film Come Back, Africa, she gained international recognition and travelled outside South Africa. It was in London she met ‘King of Calypso’ Harry Belafonte who became her mentor and helped her with her early forays into the world of being a solo recording artist in the US where she began to flourish. Having already been heavily influenced by the American jazz sound, having spent much time back in South Africa covering popular American songs with The Cuban Brothers, Makeba brought with her something unique – a perfect blend of traditional South African music with the smokey soulfulness of American jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald. It is therefore not much of a surprise that the album Pata Pata was such a resounding international success as it was almost a perfect storm at a time in which some audiences were becoming receptive to hearing an outstanding black, African and female talent.
The record itself is of a very high quality. Whilst the first track is head and shoulders above the rest that by no means is to say that the rest of it is simply filler, far from it. The title-track Pata Pata is an amazing pop song that I would challenge anyone who listens to it not to feel the urge to bop along to it. In some ways, the success of the track slightly frustrated Makeba, because it is a slightly more frivolous number lyrically, as it is about a dance move. The song was adapted from 1959 (Phata Phata) with her girl group The Skylarks; the addition to include some parts in English in the album version was a rather bold political statement. This was because English had been the language of resistance to apartheid. She refused to sing in Afrikaans as it was the language of the oppressors. Much of the album however, was performed in traditional South African languages including Swazi, Zulu and even Xhosa, the mother tongue of her father, and she demonstrated an early pan-African awareness by singing in Swahili on Ha Po Zamani.
There is a range of styles on display on the album, with the marvellously impressive cover of Ethiopian singer Tilahun Gessesse's Yetentu Tizaleny, a beautiful track in terms of its instrumentation made all the better by her stunning voice. Click Song Number One sung in Xhosa (using clicks) is a rather wonderful and upbeat listen due to its percussive elements, in a similar vein to Maria Fulo and Saduva. The softer and more soulful English-language tracks What Is Love, A Piece of Ground and West Wind are beautiful and it is remarkable how good a lyricist in a language that she did not grow up speaking – it is not much of a surprise that the legendary Nina Simone went on to cover the latter. Makeba lived a full and impressive life, rubbing shoulders with some huge names both in and outside of music. She was also married both to Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther Party as well as legend of the jazz world Hugh Masekela, and lived much of her life in exile in three different countries. She influenced a huge number of stars who went on to create their own legacy within the music world. There is a lot of information to read about her fascinating life that I cannot do justice to in this album review and I would suggest if you are that way inclined to do so, if not then I must implore you to at least check out Pata Pata – you won’t regret it.