Miriam Makeba | Miriam Makeba (May 1960)
RCA Victor (South Africa)
World / African – 34:42
“All day long we listen to American music. I don’t see why the radios in the US cannot even put aside one hour a day just to play music that is not American.”
We have a very blinkered view of the world. True, we now look down on the colonialist nature of our ancestors, imposing their culture on the lands which they invaded in the name of exploration. Whether it is the native Americans or Australians who we have displaced, we now feel that our generations would be more accommodating. But, deep down, we are still only concerned with those who look like us. There is a famous story from many years ago when, following bad weather descending on the English Channel, one national newspaper warned: “Fog in Channel; continent cut off”. Anything beyond our everyday experience is something which we do not feel the need to experience or empathise with. Unfortunately, this cultural snobbery results in us never fully understanding the wider world around us.
Many international stars from non-speaking English countries will resort to singing in English, simply to guarantee themselves a hit. But it is not just the language which puts us off; the music itself can seem alien to our ears. This is as much down to the mainstream radio and television channels, more content in churning out the latest home-grown artist than highlighting the work of an African or Asian artist (I admit that I am generalising a little and we do get the occasional breakout star, but it is fair to say that we prefer our songs to all sound the same). It is a real shame as we are missing out on some wonderful performers as a result.
Among those who deserve greater recognition outside of those with a more eclectic taste in world music is Miriam Makeba. An outspoken critic of the apartheid system that was in place in her home country of South Africa, the woman who was to be nicknamed Mama Africa found her first fame after featuring on an anti-apartheid documentary. After travelling to Broadway to feature in the South African based musical King Kong, she befriended Harry Belafonte who helped her with her visa. However, when she attempted to return to South Africa in 1960, she discovered her passport had been cancelled, leaving her in exile. She later said: “I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile.”
But while she was struggling with her own exile, she was able to use it to raise awareness not just of the political struggle within South Africa, but also the culture she had left behind. Her breakthrough album, released when she was 28, displays a range of different styles, many originating from her native land, and revealing the versatility of her voice. As Westerners (a phrase I am hesitant to use), the sounds of her Xhosa vocal clicks are completely unfamiliar to us. Certainly, we cannot rely on the words unless we happen to be fluent in that language. But it doesn’t stop the songs from having a powerful effect on us. A large part of this is down to Makeba’s voice; her ability is sensational, turning her hand to a variety of styles that leave you feeling breathless. Given the little instrumentation to support her, she is able to display a versatility that is breath-taking to hear.
Some of the traditional songs seem recognisable: The Click Song (which, as Miriam confesses in her introduction to the number, is so named by Americans unable to pronounce the African sounds themselves) is a beautiful call with a wonderful groove to it; elsewhere Mbube later became a hit for Tight Fit who, translating the words to English, released it as The Lion Sleeps Tonight – however, while this version is remembered for its cheesiness, Makeba’s version is a beautiful lullaby that all but rids the mind of any memories of the later cover. Of course, there are a couple of English language numbers, clearly included to tempt in the American record buyers who would, presumably, shy away from an album sung completely in a foreign language. The novelty number, The Naughty Little Flea, is as throw-away as it sounds, although Miriam still manages to bring a certain dignity to it. But it is her version of The House of the Rising Sun which stands out –covered by Joan Baez on her debut album in the same year, Makeba’s rendition is simply stunning and can easily stand side-by-side with the version released by The Animals a few years later, putting into question which one should be deemed definitive.
Simply regarding any music which does not fit into American or British pop as ‘World’ does no justice to the complexity and beauty of the sounds being produced outside of the Western mainstream. We should be thankful for artistes like Miriam Makeba for opening the doors to their culture and their lands. This is a beautiful, evocative album filled sung with a passion and a power that moves the heart. A definite must-listen for any list and one which will not disappoint.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Miriam Makeba here:
Next time: A Date with the Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers