1001 Albums: Miriam Makeba




Artist: Miriam Makeba

Album: Miriam Makeba

Year: 1960

Length: 34:42

Genre: African Music



” Igqira lendlela nguqo ngqothwane
Sebeqabele gqi thapha bathi nguqo ngqothwane”

The sixties are already meeting my expectations of diversity. So far I’ve listened to three albums and each has been wildly different than the last, and none have been JAZZ! Not that I don’t like jazz, I just needed a break from it. What I like about the 1001 Albums list is that they took the time to include some world music, in this case, straight out of Africa. That’s great because it’s exposing me to music I otherwise would never have heard ever.

I’ll be honest, I’ve had a little exposure to the arts in African culture. I worked at a day camp for five years and three of those years I was part of the artistic camp, where we would teach kids different art forms and each week was dedicated to a specific art (Theatre, Music, Dance, Painting, Rhythm, Cooking, etc.). Well, one summer, we did something interesting, each art would be joined with a country and our goal was to teach the art form from that country’s culture to the kids. In this particular instance, it was African Theatre.

I knew absolutely nothing about African Theatre, but that’s part of what was cool of the job, in order to teach the kids, I had to learn a lot on my own. It was definitely an enriching experience as I expanded my knowledge on arts and culture.

African Theatre was fascinating. We got to teach the kids all about how African Theatre was based on storytelling, masks were a big part of it and it was very corporal (meaning they used their bodies very heavily as part of their performance). Often told by a narrator and a group of actors performing what the narrator was telling. The fun part, especially for the kids, is that the characters were often times Animals. That’s what we did. We told the story of this humongous, selfish Hippo who would invade people’s homes and privacy and the other animals banded together to teach him a lesson. The kids loved it and were so into it, we had costumes and face paint (for both the animals and narrators) and every kid had a role. One kid volunteered to play the hippo’s butt, that’s how much they were into it.

Working with kids is a really rewarding experience, especially when they light up and get involved in the activities you do. Kids can be a hassle, but when they’re working together and having a great time, it’s totally worth having to deal with the negative moments.

Following year, during our Singing week, we had a music teacher come in and teach the kids various songs that we performed at the end of the week for the entire camp. She chose songs that were adapted to the different age groups, but one particular song was performed by the entire artistic camp: La Ren Soleil (not sure if that’s the correct spelling, but you get the gist). It was a traditional African song about planting… plants and cultivating them and hoping the rain will come down and make them grow. The kids loved it and the camp counsellors were equally into it because it came with hand gestures and little dance movements that we all got really into. There was an integration camp at the day camp and a boy with autism was put with us that week and it was his favourite song. To see him be able to perform a song with us was truly a touching moment.

My point is, I’ve been exposed to some African music (we also had some African guy come in and teach us about African rhythm and clapping your hands and the different style of African dancing and how its based on tasks and chores they did, but if I started talking details of everything we learned this post would be way too long). That song I mentioned above is exactly the type of music that was on this album. It’s the first thing I thought of when listening to this and it brought back memories of being with the kids and teaching them. I associated that with this album, which felt like it could have easily been part of a kid’s show. But learning that a lot of the songs (like The Click Song for example) were traditional songs from her home town of Johannesburg, it makes sense that I got that feeling from it.

I understood none of what she said but it didn’t matter because you can just feel the vibe of tradition and old times seeping through. There was something rather peaceful of the whole thing and I think that came from the simplicity of it all. There was nothing complex going on but it was part of it’s charm. It never tries to be what it’s not, but instead wants you to be aware of the traditions that it came from, which is very nice. Also, Miriam has a beautiful voice. She sings with power and ease in a calm, blissful tone that is often accompanied by male back-up, who never distract and only add to the experience of the songs. I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out Miriam was a kindergarten teacher, because that’s the vibe she gives off through the whole thing.

It was also interesting to see the influence that this type of music had on western culture.  want to make specific mention to her song Mbube. Obviously, you reading this, have no idea what the song is, but if you heard it you’d recognize it very easily. It’s heavily reminiscent of the popular song we all love to sing: The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The famous Owimowe and EEEEEEEEEEEEE, comes from this song. It’s not directly the same, but you can see the Tokens borrowed heavily from this, especially since the Lion Sleeps Tonight takes place in Africa. When the song started and the familiarity kicked in, I found myself enjoying the song way more than I expected.

Before I end this, I want to talk about a specific song that really stood out for me: One Last Dance. This is one of the few songs where she sung in English, so I understood everything she was singing, which was nice. But what really took my attention was her co-singer, Charles Coman. Throughout the song Miriam is singing about her sick and dying husband and this asshole is laughing the whole way through. No joke, he’s full on laughing and can barely keep it together when he sings that her husband is dead. There’s another line where he mentions his will will run red (or something along those lines) and he can’t even say the line because his laughter just bursts out in one long breathy gasp. What is going on?! This is one of the most absurd things ever. Why is this asshole laughing about her husband dying? Is it bad that I couldn’t stop laughing and found this to be incredibly funny (especially the parts where he’s having difficulty holding it in)? Was it supposed to be funny? I sure hope so… like what happened? Was Charles having a laughing fit in the sound booth while recording and couldn’t do another take for whatever reason? It’s so fascinating, I would love an explanation to this. Honestly, if you get the chance, check it out for yourself.

Miriam is a beautiful, beautiful soul and this is a beautiful, beautiful album. I never thought I’d be this into African Music, but it definitely convinced me it’s worth checking out.

Song of Choice: Mbube


Photoshop Credit: Julian Branco


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