If any single performer can be said to have created “world beat” music, it is Miriam Makeba. Exiled for twenty-five years from her native South Africa for her outspoken opposition to apartheid, Makeba countered by becoming an icon with a voice heard throughout the world. She first came to prominence in the 1950s and even then was combining elements of jazz and popular music with the traditions of Africa. Facing harassment in the United States because of her marriage to Stokely Carmichael and her identification with the Black Civil Rights movement here, she eventually settled in Guinea, maintaining her reputation as a strong advocate of equality and her career as an extraordinarily popular performer. She brings to her music a richness compounded of tradition, innovation, and superb musicianship.
Originally released by Verve Records and reissued on compact disc in 1989 by Mercury, Welela is a mid-career signpost, featuring a firm center in African and Afro-Caribbean traditions and essays into more “popular” modes, with results that are sometimes breathtaking. “Amampondo,” the first track, incorporates traditional African vocals, with their Western-sounding melodies and close harmonies, over a syncopated, Caribbean-based rhythm, to provide an energetic introduction to the offerings to follow. “African Sunset,” the second track, is astonishing: syncopation – milder only by contrast – maintained by percussion and guitar, showcases vocals in which Makeba manages to extend a phrase well past what one expects, until one realizes that she’s right – that’s what it should be. (This is a characteristic that enriches other selections on this disc, and one that comes from the “storytelling” quality of African song.) The combination of her sometimes staccato delivery of the verses contrasts with the harmonic smoothness of the refrain to build an extraordinarily rich texture.
There are almost too many highlights on this recording. “Soweto Blues” is a sulky, fluent song that dips deeply into jazz vocals. The title track is compelling, to say the very least: a strongly catch-start rhythm puts a seemingly precarious but solid foundation under Makeba’s soaring vocals, the whole given added accent by brass and flute, building another rich tapestry of sound with that “something extra” that makes a great song.
Strangely enough, given the basis of Makeba’s notoriety, the few songs that are plainly “protest” songs are rather mild. “Africa” is so comfortably fluid that one almost misses the phrase “I’m free” longingly repeated in the lyrics. “A Luta Continua” is likewise deceptive.
Under an overall unity of “type” – syncopation, close harmonies, strong texture, clarity in delivery – there are contrasts, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious. One can find strands of jazz, American popular music, Latin influence, all woven into and through the African foundation. This is a collection that almost defies adequate description: one feels that Makeba is graced by such a strong, unified vision that essays into different styles and modes are simply part of the package, something assumed. It is not until later that one stops and says, “I don’t believe she did that!” Add to that the informed and intelligent intensity of Makeba herself, and you have quite an offering in your hand.
In all honesty, anything by Miriam Makeba is worth listening to. Although not every song on this album is a “favorite,” even the ones I don’t like are good.
(Mercury Records, 1989.)