Album of the Day: Miriam Makeba, “Pata Pata”

By early 1967, Miriam Makeba’s career was well under way: she’d been performing in Johannesburg since she was a child, and by the 1950s she was singing professionally with all-girl group The Skylarks, moving between jazz, popular African songs, and Western soul. But despite her talent and charm, she was virtually unknown beyond the South African borders.

All of that changed in 1959, when the young artist appeared in U.S. filmmaker Lionel Rogosin’s acclaimed anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa. Angered by her political stance, South Africa’s white supremacist government banned her from returning home, and, after a short stint in Europe, Makeba landed in New York City. Within weeks, she was touring with Harry Belafonte (and would go on to perform with him at President John F. Kennedy’s Madison Square Garden birthday party), performing at Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches, and appearing regularly on primetime television. Throughout the 1960s, her fame spread across the USA and Europe, and in 1966 she became the first African woman to win a Grammy.

But it was in 1967, with her incredibly catchy smash hit “Pata Pata,” that Makeba became a global sensation. The song, which musicologist Rob Allingham calls “probably the best-known song of African origin in the world,” had previously been recorded by Makeba and The Skylarks in 1959, but this brighter, uptempo version, produced by R&B producer Jerry Ragovoy, proved irresistible to audiences all over the world. Makeba herself never quite understood the success of “Pata Pata,” and thought of it as a “fun little song” but with “no meaning.”

That’s even more striking within the context of the album, recently reissued by Strut Records in both mono and stereo versions, which is full of brazenly political tracks and hard-hitting social commentary. “West Wind,” a soft soul track written by Makeba’s daughter Bongi (and later covered by Nina Simone) deals with themes of Pan-Africanism and racial equality: “Westwind with your splendor / Take my people by the hand / Spread your glory sunshine / Unify mother Africa / Unify my precious land.”

In “Piece of Ground,” with a touch of bitter irony, she tackles colonialism, land grabbing, and slavery, singing, “Now this land is so rich and it seems strange to me / That the black man whose labor has helped it to be / Cannot enjoy the fruits that abound / Is uprooted and kicked from his own piece of ground.”

Makeba always insisted she was not a political singer, but (echoing anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who once said that South African are, by default, involved in politics) that she simply sang the truth about what happened in South Africa, “especially the things that hurt.”

Taken in its entirety, Pata Pata epitomizes Makeba’s cosmopolitan, international outlook. There are songs that represent the multicultural landscape where she grew up, inspired by the Swazi, Zulu (“Pata Pata,” for example), and Xhosa people (such as the hit “Click Song Number One,” and “Jol’inkomo”) folk songs. But she also looked to other parts of the African continent: on “Ha Po Zamani,” for example, she sings in Swahili, while “Yetentu Tizaleny” is a wonderfully impassioned cover version of a track by Ethiopian singer Tilahun Gessesse.

In this album, and throughout her career, Makeba stayed true to her culture, her conscience, and her integrity, while also introducing the world to the sounds of her continent.

-Megan Iacobini de Fazio

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