In a seemingly ageless clip of South African singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba, performing live on prime-time US TV, she sounds and looks radiant, soaring and shimmying through a melody that is irresistibly catchy from its opening notes; show host Ed Sullivan introduces her briefly yet emphatically as “magnificent”. The year of the clip is 1967, and Makeba’s song is Pata Pata: an international smash hit by a black female talent exiled from her own country under apartheid rule.
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Makeba had released many songs before Pata Pata, but for global audiences it has endured as an instant gateway, both to the rich versatility of her sound, and an expansive world perspective. Makeba had previously recorded a version of the song, the sweetly swinging Phatha Phatha, with her Johannesburg girl group The Skylarks in 1959. Her musical abilities had been recognised during her Prospect Township childhood, and by her 20s she was singing and acting professionally, appearing in US filmmaker Lionel Rogosin’s acclaimed anti-apartheid movie, Come Back, Africa (1959) among other things; her emergence as a prominent young activist voice led to South Africa’s white supremacist government banning her from returning home in 1960.
The song was a burst of gloriously defiant revelry even in times of hardship and oppression
In the US, Makeba successfully collaborated with calypso star Harry Belafonte; they sang together at JFK’s Madison Square Garden birthday party in 1962, and won a Grammy for their album, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965). The 1967 release of Pata Pata, however, proved an irrepressible mainstream breakthrough.
This version of the song, recorded with US R&B producer Jerry Ragovoy, featured a lighter, more directly poppy arrangement and a few additional English-language words (“Every Friday and Saturday night, it’s Pata Pata time!” exclaims Makeba), but it retained an unrestrained spark, with Xhosa-language lyrics about a flirtatious dance move (‘Pata’ translates as ‘light touch’): a burst of gloriously defiant revelry even in times of hardship and oppression. Xhosa was also the native tongue of Makeba’s late father, and a language often regarded as too complex for ‘mainstream’ audiences to pronounce; another Makeba song, Qongqothwane (1960, based on a traditional Xhosa song), was popularly known as The Click Song).
Pata Pata’s roots run undeniably deep. In his essay, From Noma Kumnyama To Pata Pata (2009), music historian Rob Allingham describes the track as “quite probably the best-known song of African origin in the world”, and argues that it can be traced to even earlier sources, including a 1940s Zulu-language vocal group. Makeba herself would express ambivalent feelings about the track; in her 1987 autobiography My Story, she described Pata Pata as “one of my most insignificant songs” – certainly, her catalogue features a wealth of grittier sentiments, not least Sophiatown Is Gone (a 50s jazzy lament about the apartheid destruction of a vibrant township) or Soweto Blues (a 1977 song about the 1976 Soweto uprising, written by her former husband, multi-instrumentalist Hugh Masekela).
Yet Makeba was also struck by Pata Pata’s pervasive impact, writing: “All of a sudden, people who never knew I have been in America since 1959 are asking me to be on their television shows and play at their concert halls in 1967. In the discotheques, they have invented a new dance called the Pata Pata. Couples dance apart, and they then reach out and touch each other. I go to Argentina for a concert, and everywhere I travel in South America, they are singing my song.”
Pata Pata still captures a subversive joy, a sense of indefatigable human spirit – like all the greatest pop records, it is not throwaway, but revolutionary
The US, of course, was tussling with its own civil rights issues. Middle America may not have flinched when Makeba was testifying against South Africa’s apartheid regime at the UN, but it blanched with hostility when she married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther Party, in 1968; Makeba suddenly found her US tour dates and TV appearances cancelled, and the couple moved to Guinea – she would later relocate to Belgium.
In her book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul, Tanisha C Ford points out that Makeba’s US success could not simply be cancelled; it “gave many black Americans their first introduction to African culture”, adding that her visual style also conveyed a significant message: “By the late 1960s, she had traded in her short-cropped natural [hair] for cornrows adorned with large wooden beads. Makeba and Carmichael’s union signified the marriage of soul style and Black Power and evoked notions of revolutionary femininity and masculinity as well as of African diasporic unity.”
Over the 70s and 80s, Makeba might have become a stateless superstar, but her sound continued to champion South African culture as she performed across continents, her collaboration with Paul Simon on his 1987 Graceland project brought her back into the US spotlight (and elicited controversy, for breaking a cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa), and Pata Pata never lost its universal appeal. It still captures a subversive joy, a sense of indefatigable human spirit – like all the greatest pop records, it is not throwaway, but revolutionary.
In a 2000 interview with BOMB magazine, Makeba still expressed some incredulity at Pata Pata’s massive success: “I don’t know why people like that song,” Makeba laughed. “It doesn’t say anything… [But] Sometimes people are tired of thinking of difficult and unpleasant things.”
Makeba understood the power of music, and used that power – Rita Ray
Broadcaster, cultural commentator and club DJ Rita Ray succinctly champions Pata Pata’s significance in 2019: “It’s a track I have known since childhood, when my parents played it at parties. it's been ever present [ever] since,” Ray tells BBC Culture. “Yeah, it’s a pop song, yes it’s about dancing and having fun, but crucially, Pata Pata transcends boundary and race. What is wrong with that – especially given that when Miriam recorded the hit version she was pretty much a lone voice speaking out against apartheid and crucially making the world aware of the inhumanity of it? She was young, beautiful and dangerously smart. She was witnessing apartheid in the US. Does she deliver her message by any means necessary, or via the hope of getting to the promised land? I think she understood the power of music, and used that power.”
Pata Pata would be the last song that Makeba ever sang on stage; she suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after performing at a charity concert for anti-Camorra writer Roberto Saviano, on 9 November, 2008. She was 76 when she died, with Nelson Mandela (who had eventually persuaded Makeba, a long-time campaigner for his freedom, to return to post-apartheid South Africa) leading the tributes to an artist now revered as ‘Mama Africa’.
It is slightly surreal to consider the sheer range of cover versions that Pata Pata has inspired, from the Nuyorican big band blast of Tito Puente (1969) to a 1980 reworking of the tune by French yeye singer Sylvie Vartan and a recent version created for the soundtrack to a dancing videogame. A brilliant rendition still warrants a standing ovation – as Benin-born star Angelique Kidjo recently proved, when she closed her London Proms show with a vivacious homage to Pata Pata – but it always brings us back to the original. Makeba would write in her autobiography: “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising.” Pata Pata may not have been her own favourite anthem, but it somehow embodies her grace and strength, and that of the culture she kept with her.
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