Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November 10: Miriam Makeba, "Pata Pata"

Artist: Miriam Makeba
Album: Pata Pata
Year: 1967
Label: Sono/Reprise

Throughout the overall history of music, there are an elite few musicians whose presence in the world caused massive amounts of change, and their status soars far beyond that of simply being called a "musician." These artists changed the course of history, and often times were forced to deal with issues and events that had nothing to do with music. In at least one case, due to a performer speaking their mind on extremely relevant issues, they were banished from their home country. Ironically, this legendary performer, who after testifying about apartheid in 1963 and having her South African passport revoked, would soon be given the nickname, "Mama Afrika." Standing as one of the most important and influential singers and activists in history, it was almost solely due to her efforts that African music was brought to the world. Possessing one of the most pure and gorgeous voices in history, there are few that are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the only and only Miriam Makeba. The true definition of an international superstar, Makeba was given honorary citizenship in more than ten countries, and she did not return to her home country for nearly thirty years. During this time in exile, Makeba recorded countless classic songs, won Grammy's, and advocated against injustice of any sort. Even with all of her amazing humanitarian efforts, there is little doubt that Miriam Makeba will always be best remembered for her absolutely magnificent 1967 album, the indispensable Pata Pata.

By the time Pata Pata was released, Miriam Makeba was already very much a household name across the globe. In 1959, she was featured in the 1959 anti-apartheid documentary, Come Back, Africa, and viewers across the planet were quickly enthralled with her voice and views. It was due to her success in the film that she was able to secure a visa to Italy to attend a premiere of the film. After traveling to London, she met musician Harry Belafonte, who was able to aid her in gaining entrance to the United States. It was at this time that Makeba found her passport had been revoked, and three years later, after testifying before the United Nations about apartheid, her South African citizenship was also revoked, as well as her being "formally" banned from her home country. Yet even with all of these events, her leaving South Africa and her meeting of Belafonte is what brought her international stardom. Though she had already released a few albums since her departure from South Africa, in 1965, Makeba and Belafonte collaborated for the album, An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. The record went on to win the 1966 Grammy Award for "Best Folk Recording," and began Makeba's quest to fight injustices throughout the world. After the success of her collaboration with Belafonte, a handful of collections of her songs were released, and then in 1967, she gave the world Pata Pata.

Finding Pata Pata can be somewhat confusing as there are in fact two different albums from Miriam Makeba with the same title. They both list nearly the same release date, yet they feature different covers, as well as two extremely different track listings. The notes found on the back of the album offer little help, but the truth of the matter is, the second version (NOT pictured above), is in fact a live performance that Makeba gave following the success of the studio album. The live version is now out of print, yet live performances of Makeba are relatively to find due to the sheer number of performances that she gave throughout her life. The studio version of Pata Pata is one of the most musically refreshing and beautiful albums one can experience. Brilliantly blending together sounds from all over the world, Pata Pata at times features the flamenco sounds of Latin America, while at other times features fantastic horn arrangements. Regardless of the songs' overtones, they are all based on strong, energetic African poly-rhythms. It is this fusion of various sounds of the world with Makeba's native African sounds that enthralled listeners across the globe, and the impact of her recordings can be found in nearly every genre of music over the next few decades. From songs of pain and suffering, to joyous celebrations of life and love (check out "Malayisha" for one of the most amusing and enjoyable songs ever recorded), Pata Pata is easily one of the most diverse records one will ever hear.

While the music found throughout Pata Pata is truly fantastic, there is simply no way that one can get past the absolutely phenomenal voice of Miriam Makeba. Truly showing no limit to her vocal range, and regardless of in what language she chooses to sing, Makeba's voice is nothing short of blissful in every song. Proving the idea that music transcends language barriers, one cannot help but feel the deep sorrow and pain found on the song, "Yetentu Tizaleny." Along with the slower, more blues-based numbers, Pata Pata features a trio of Miriam Makeba's most enduring, and most well known songs. Standing in stark contrast to one another, the joyous "Ring Bell, Ring Bell" and the anti-colonization song "A Piece Of Ground" show the wide range of Makeba's abilities. While the former is as much of a "pop" song as one could ever want, the later is a meandering rally cry against the injustices of colonization, yet while the song focuses on the African continent, the song has become an anthem for downtrodden across the globe. Then of course, there is the albums' legendary title track. Combining a samba-like groove with a simple acoustic guitar, a catchy piano hook, and a smattering of African drums and "click," "Pata Pata" is easily one of the most wonderfully perfect songs ever composed. Singing in both her native tongue as well as English, the song speaks of traditional dance celebrations of the African youth, and the song is just as relevant and enjoyable in Johannesburg as it is Jacksonville. It is this ability to transcend cultures, along with her absolutely stunning voice that makes Miriam Makeba one of the most important and truly extraordinary performers in music history.

Miriam Makeba was truly a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and her voice and songs endure the test of time due to both their honesty as well as their sheer beauty. By far one of the most dynamic and mesmerizing performers in music history, it only seems fitting that Makeba tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack on stage in Italy on November 10, 2008...just after she had finished performing "Pata Pata." Such a passing only contributed to her legend and there were countless ceremonies in her honor across the globe. This reverence throughout the world solidified the fact that, due to her music and courage to publicly stand up for the rights of others, Miriam Makeba had truly made herself into a worldwide icon. While her humanitarian efforts throughout her life cannot be overlooked, it is her voice and amazing presence that will forever be remembered. The recorded catalog that she left behind is massive, and there is not a bad song to be found anywhere. From her collaborations with Harry Belafonte to her later work with Paul Simon, there are truly few artists who have had as significant as wide-reaching an impact as Miriam Makeba. Remaining today as one of the most extraordinary and absolutely essential recordings in history, Miriam Makeba's 1967 release, Pata Pata, stands in a class all its own and continues to be moving, invigorating, and influential more than forty years after it was first released.

Standout tracks: "Pata Pata," "A Piece Of Ground," and "Malayisha."

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