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The Travel of “Pata Pata”: Miriam Makeba and the Cosmopolitan Anthem

A South African singer who was exiled for her political activism in 1959 and moved to the States, Miriam Makeba, sometimes called Mama Africa (by Americans), is nothing less than an icon. Her signature song, “Pata Pata,” released in the U.S. in 1967, charted internationally, a transnational dance hit. (Originally, Makeba recorded the song in 1959 with her girl group the Skylarks, but she re-recorded the hit with an English verse and an up-tempo beat after establishing her solo career.)

Shana Redmond, in Anthem, reads Makeba’s work primarily through her live performances. Makeba was an anti-apartheid activist and deeply involved in leftist, anti-racist movements – in 1968, she married the Black Power activist and SNCC leader Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael. Through her touring and her circulating commercial recordings, Makeba’s sound stoked sympathy for the South African anti-apartheid movement across North America, Europe, and Africa. Though the South African government revoked her passport and banned her music in 1963, she was otherwise a cosmopolitan and popular singer, moving with ease across other countries and venues. Redmond frames Makeba’s performances—particularly her performance of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the ANC anthem, which she never recorded—as “the greatest enactment of dissent for the subject of a country and continent under colonial siege … musical performance was a spectacular exhibition of the complex performances and pleasures of blackness” (241). The black body was surveilled and controlled in South Africa (via apartheid) and the States (via Jim Crow), but Makeba could take control on the stage, singing both of explicit anti-apartheid political action and dancing with joy (like in “Pata Pata”).

As her performances moved throughout Europe and North America, though, the live show Performing folk songs for white audiences (not just songs from South Africa, but Brazil and Israel as well), Makeba’s performances were often consumed by those who thought it something “strange, “different,” a site of witnessing the “authentic Africa” which, of course, did not exist. Reviewing one of Makeba’s performances in 1961, the music critic Ken Goldberg wrote in the LA Times that Makeba “sung five African songs in unspecified languages, or perhaps all in the same language. The words do not matter.” (For the record, Makeba could sing in English, Zulu, Xhosa, Hebrew, Sotho, Swahili, and Portuguese.) People in the West became fascinated with “Pata, Pata” because of its Xhosa clicks and Afropop beat. As a marketing tool, the record label RCA made Makeba’s “Africanness” hypervisible, selling her style (short, natural hair; no make-up; no skin lighteners; African jewelry and prints) to the hip. The performance became a space to reinforce, reproduce, and shape an idea of “Africa” that the audience already had walking into the venue. In reality, Makeba’s repertoire wasn’t simply some pure form of “South African music”; it was an amalgamation of cultural inheritances from lounge/jazz circles in the U.S. to Brazilian folk songs (her guitarist was Brazilian).

I don’t mean to suggest that Makeba’s performances were simply an otherness that was consumed (and this is what many critics of Makeba’s popularity in the West miss). On stage, she wore animal print dresses and beads, sometimes in front of a set of palm trees, but she’d also offer context for her songs, informing the audience of the history behind a South African protest songs like “Mayibuye” and “Khawuleza.” Her hyper-influential style was her own, a preference she inherited from her time in South Africa (the short, natural hair was common in South Africa at the time, as were long evening dresses, a modest style inherited from Christian missionaries—and thus multicultural). In her live shows, Makeba consciously performed her “nativeness” or “Africanness,” negotiating her stage persona between the politics of dissent, the politics of internationalism, the expectations of her audience, and the commercial appeal of her live shows; she still ruled the stage, singing of colonialism and apartheid, controlling what the audience listened to, even if they didn’t care enough to listen to the words.

Meanwhile, Makeba’s status as “Mama Africa” also opened up an imaginary space of pan-African solidarity between Makeba and her African-American audiences. After her exile from South Africa, Makeba came more political in interviews; she linked the anti-apartheid struggle to the anti-racist activism in the U.S. and Brazil, and she began to speak for the “oppressed.” She also recorded an album with Harry Belafonte, who was active in the civil rights movement. She sang at a rally for Martin Luther King and, of course, married Stokely Carmichael, and so she became popular among black activist circles in the U.S. Through the lens of pan-African solidarity, the print dresses of her performances become political, if reductive, and the music speaks to a lost inheritance, re-contextualized by the listener.

After marrying Carmichael, Makeba found she was barred from many American venues; white managers associated her with the radical politics of the Black Panthers, so she and Carmichael moved to Guinea, exiled again. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Makeba performed mostly to audiences across Africa, at a moment of decolonization. In “The Voice of (Which?) Africa: Miriam Makeba in America,” April Sizemore-Barber writes that, through her extensive touring and performance at pan-Afrian festivals, Makeba “became an active participant in the cultural and political creation of modern Africa and a staunch defender of its place in the world.” When she sang “Pata Pata” in Liberia, the audience overtook her, creating a singular voice, a pan-African solidarity: Makeba was no longer the fascinating “other” with the strange clicks. Makeba’s “Pata Pata” performance is read and consumed differently, then, by the divergent audiences she reaches both through her physical, cosmopolitan travel and the travel of her commercial records.

On vinyl—and now CDs, tapes and streaming—Makeba’s voice moved outside the space of performance. As represented by “Pata Pata,” that catchy dance-tune sung half in Xhosa, half in English—the song translates literally to “Touch, Touch”—Makeba’s career teeters on the uneasy relationship between the recording technology and the performance. Her voice spread so far, through the technology of commercial recordings and its dissociation from the performer, that Makeba “came to represent a sonic stand-in for the continent of Africa,” as April Sizemore-Barber reads it. Even without her physical presence, she was Mama Africa, the aural embodiment of a history and geography. Unlike a performance, the recorded songs also spread across time, so students in an elementary school gym class on the U.S. east coast can dance to it now. Unmoored from a body and located in digital space, the future imaginations of “Pata Pata” are multifarious and minor: who will listen and how they will listen remains to be seen, but Makeba’s voice lives on.

Works Cited

Ford, Tanisha C. Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Sizemore-Barber, April (July–October 2012). “The Voice of (Which?) Africa: Miriam Makeba in America”. Safundi: the Journal of South African and American Studies13 (3–4): 251–276. doi:10.1080/17533171.2012.715416.