Majestic recordings by a genuine world music pioneer.
Colin Irwin 2009
On 8 November 2008, the great South African singer Miriam Makeba performed at a concert in Italy in support of writer Roberto Saviano’s fight against organised crime. After finishing one of her earliest hits, Pata Pata, she suffered a massive heart attack and died. Having spent most of her life blending her glorious gift for song with a passionate political sensibility while speaking out against social injustice wherever she found it – her virulent anti-apartheid work led to a 30-year exile from her homeland – it was a somehow fitting finale.
Over a dozen Makeba compilations of radically varying quality preceded this one – the Mama Africa soubriquet was even used on a 25-track 2000 release which had the subtitle The Very Best of Miriam Makeba, with relatively few duplications between that and the 36 tracks here. But, while hardly definitive – half a century of music can never be properly encapsulated in one double CD set – this does represent a solid picture of the range and vibrancy of Makeba’s output and attitude over such a long period.
It takes her right back to her beginnings in the mid-1950s, vivaciously singing with The Manhattan Brothers (an utterly charming Ntyilo Ntyilo) and The Skylarks through to her Xhosa language hit The Click Song and the more westernised soul style that followed. We get duets with Nina Simone (a fiery adaptation of Dylan’s I Shall be Released) and fellow South African Sipho Mabuse (the slightly over-sentimental Mama) in addition to distinctively individual treatments of familiar material like the Sergio Mendes hit Mas Que Nada and Mbube, better known as Wimoweh or The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
The running order seems completely random and an accompanying booklet offers a fairly pedestrian account of her life, woefully lacking even basic recording details or insight. What the collection can claim, however, is some majestic recordings by a genuine world music pioneer long before the term was invented, equally at ease with indigenous African material, the jazzier style of Choo Choo Train and poignantly soulful message songs like Quit It, West Wind and Soweto Blues.