If you like jazz vocalese, doo-wop, old-time soul, gospel, South African township music, or any combination of the aforementioned, you will probably love these two CDs by Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks. Together these separate releases provide a comprehensive overview of the group's recorded legacy.
Makeba and the Skylarks were one of the most successful South African vocal groups to blend American influences (Mills Brothers-style pop, gospel, and jazz) with South African tribal rhythms and vocal styles (primarily mbube, a four-part harmony approach originated by Zulu miners). Their music holds up extremely well four decades after it was recorded. The vocal harmonies are both complex and infectious, the backing instrumentation is loose and jazzy, and the sound is superb considering the music was recorded between 1956 and 1959.
Language is no barrier when listening to the beautiful harmonies of Makeba and the Skylarks. Even when Miriam and the girls sing in Xhosa or Zulu, it’s easy to understand their joy. A few tracks are also sung in English.
While growing up in a tough Johannesburg township, Miriam Makeba first sang in Protestant school choirs. After achieving initial fame with the Manhattan Brothers, Makeba recorded a few singles under her own name before Gallo Records asked her to front a South African girl group loosely patterned after the Andrews Sisters and the McGuire Sisters.
Makeba’s lead vocals have a pure and innocent quality that belies her savvy as a bandleader. In the early days she did not hesitate to fire several Skylarks who couldn’t cut the mustard, but eventually Makeba arrived at a fixed line-up consisting of Mary Rabotapi, Abigail Kubeka, and Mummy Girl Nketle. Another singer or two occasionally augmented Makeba and the girls. The most frequent addition on these CDs is Sam Ngakane, a deep bass singer who also produced some of the group’s biggest hits, including "Hush" and "Inkomo Zodwa."
Enhancing the gorgeous vocal harmonies wer some excellent South African jazzmen, most notably the band’s white musical director and talented clarinetist-saxman-pianist Dan Hill, as well as the great South African pennywhistler Spokes Mashiyane, who coaxed as much soul out of his simple instrument as any human could. Like the finest mainstream jazz, this music has a relaxed, spontaneous feel that is a complete joy to hear. It’s easy to understand why these lilting melodies gave hope to blacks living the nightmare of apartheid.
After Makeba left South African in 1959 to attend the Venice film festival, the South African authorities would not allow her to return. Her records were banned from South African radio, and the Skylarks broke up a short while later. Even in exile Makeba’s fame continued to grow, and she went on to lead an amazing life: She survived a plane crash and multiple car wrecks. Along with Marilyn Monroe, she sang at JFK's 1962 birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. She recovered from cancer. She married and divorced Hugh Masekela and Stokely Carmichael. She become the first African artist to win a Grammy. She received the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize for her anti-apartheid activism. And she returned in triumph to South Africa in 1990 at the invitation of Nelson Mandela.
Today Miriam Makeba is known worldwide as "Mama Africa." She is by far the most famous African musical artist of all time, and even in her 70s she continues to make beautiful music.
Miriam Makeba & the Skylarks, Vol. 1 - Inkomo Zodwa; Nomalungelo; Make Us One; Siyavuya; Holilili; Sindiza Ngecadillacs; Live Humble; Mtshakasi; Uthando Luyaphela; Phansi Kwalomhlaba; Kutheni Sithandwa; Miriam and Spokes' Phatha Phatha; Yini Madoda; Umbhaqanga; Miriam's Goodbye to Africa; Table Mountain
Miriam Makeba, Abigail Kubeka, Mummy Girl Mketele, Mary Rabotapo, Sam Ngakane, Nomunde Sihawu, Helen von Rensburg, Zaktihli Dlamini, Zelda Malgas; Thoko Marshall (vocals); Dan Hill (clarinet, sax, piano, bongos); Spokes Mashiyane (Pennywhistle); General Duze, Reggie Msomi (guitars); Johannes "Chooks" Tshukudu, Danny Boy Sibanyoni (bass); Louis Molubi (drums); many others (trumpet, piano, percussion & more)
All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.
You Can Help
To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.