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Miriam Makeba: ‘Pata Pata’, from ‘insignificant’ ditty to anti-apartheid anthem

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Mythical African songs that made history

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Thursday, 24 June 2021 07:35, updated on Wednesday, 30 June 2021 19:17

South African singer Makeba performs in Havana
South African singer and Human Rights activist Miriam Makeba performs at a theatre in Havana October 7, 2005. Makeba gave two concerts in Cuba as part of her international farewell tour. REUTERS/Claudia Daut - RP2DSFHEEBAB

10 years after it was originally created, the Xhosa-language song became an international hit and put South African singer Miriam Makeba on the map as a figure of the anti-apartheid struggle.

This is part 3 of a 6-part series

“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

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