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“Pata Pata is the name of a dance / We do down Johannesburg way / And everybody starts to move / As soon as Pata Pata starts to play,” sings Miriam Makeba in a track that sounds perfectly innocuous if the listener doesn’t dig any deeper into its Xhosa lyrics. The South African star herself referred to the song as “insignificant”. Without additional context or knowledge of the singer’s background, it’s difficult to grasp the import of the tune, which was one of the very first African hits to achieve international acclaim.
A life of struggle
Makeba’s life was marked by struggle. Shortly after her birth on 4 March 1932 in Prospect Township, Johannesburg, her mother was sentenced to six months in prison for illegally selling homebrew to provide for her family. Miriam, nicknamed Zenzi (short for uzenzile, a Xhosa phrase meaning ‘you have no one to blame but yourself’), accompanied her mother to jail, where she spent the first few months of her life.
Her long history of involvement in fighting racial oppression also raised the song’s profile
Aged 14 when apartheid began, she quickly spoke out against segregation after launching her music career six years later. At 20, she was already mother to a three-year-old girl, a breast cancer survivor and a divorcee.
Pata Pata was originally recorded in South Africa by Makeba’s girl group, The Skylarks, in 1959, though some sources say it was in 1956. With complex vocal harmonies, a spontaneous vibe and a mix of pop, jazz and gospel influences (Makeba learned to sing in a Protestant church choir), the group enjoyed success in the country, but the song didn’t gain international attention.
A short time later, the singer’s social activism brought her career in South Africa to an abrupt end. Her appearance in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid film directed by the American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, and its premiere at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, where it won an award, forced her to live in exile for more than 30 years. Stripped of her citizenship and right to return to South Africa, Makeba wasn’t even able to attend her mother’s funeral in 1960, which only further fuelled her anger and activism.
In 1967, some 10 years after its creation, Pata Pata was re-recorded in the US and released on the singer’s studio album of the same name, on Reprise Records. The successful American composer Jordan ‘Jerry’ Ragovoy, known for several soul hits, produced the new version of the track, which featured a spoken-word part delivered by the artist in English, as well as a more groove-infused, high-energy vibe.
In the song, Makeba ‘clicks’, growls and gets carried away by joy that seems unstoppable. The tune’s worldwide success led to droves of covers by performers from Spain, Italy, Finland and France, including a version sung by Sylvie Vartan that hasn’t aged nearly as well as the original.
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Thanks to this exposure, Makeba became an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle, but her long history of involvement in fighting racial oppression also raised the song’s profile. In 2020, Angélique Kidjo gave Pata Pata a pandemic-era update. The Beninese singer views Mama Africa’s ‘party song’ as an anthem highlighting the injustices of apartheid.
The ‘insignificant’ tune endured all the way up to the end of Makeba’s life: in 2008, she died in Italy after giving an anti-mafia concert, during which she performed Pata Pata, in support of the writer Roberto Saviano.
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