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Originally published on September 3, 2021.
By Lissette Corsa
The extraordinary life of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba has been a constant North Star and source of inspiration for vocalist, composer and writer Somi Kakoma. Somi, as she’s known artistically, pays tribute to the late matriarch of African song on her latest album, Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba (Salon Africana), and on stage in an original production, Dreaming Zenzile, starring the singer as Makeba and featuring a cast of supporting actors and a live band. It’s set to premiere later this year, with multiple dates throughout the U.S.
Born in Illinois to East African parents, the Grammy-nominated singer had felt compelled to exalt Makeba once before. Shortly after the singer’s death in 2008, she organized an impromptu concert in New York City at Le Croissant Rouge, inviting some of Makeba’s closest friends to perform and celebrate her life. “I think that was the beginning of my deeper connection to her,” she says. “At some point someone said, ‘You know Somi, there’s still room to tell Miriam Makeba’s story.’”
But more than just telling Makeba’s story of artistry, activism and exile, Somi dives deeper. Moved by the singer’s resilience and selflessness, she poignantly captures the intricacies that shaped Makeba the woman, in thoughtfully nuanced, contemporary renditions of some of the singer’s most iconic songs as well as lesser-known gems.
“I’m interested in constantly honoring the space-making that she did on behalf of all of us, as the first African artist to really arrive on the global cultural stage and have incredible success,” Somi explains. “We’re all indebted to her.”
Recorded throughout the summer of 2019 and into the pandemic, Zenzile blends Makeba originals and covers painstakingly culled from a catalogue spanning more than 60 years. Somi, who’s garnered accolades for work that boldly bridges jazz and Pan-African-tinged sonorities while weaving stories that are rooted in African joy and struggle, invited guest artists from across the African diaspora with a connection to Makeba. She selected the album’s 17 tracks based on her initial reaction to the songs, the stories behind them, and elements that stood out from a compositional perspective. “It really also came down to where were some of the interesting musical moments on the original records that I wanted to highlight or even disrupt,” Somi says.
Such was the case with upbeat, 1967 global hit “Pata Pata,” the song that launched Makeba’s international career. Somi’s version is completely altered, made darker by a languid tempo, melancholic strings and a snippet of an interview with Makeba speaking on the two very different Johannesburgs. The once buoyant, carefree original is now a somber rendition that invokes nostalgia and a search for home.
“Khuluma,” featuring singer-songwriter Msaki, is adorned with soulful, supple horn lines that pay homage to South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and his original arrangement of the song. “I wanted them to kind of feel phantom,” Somi explains. “Like they were coming back from the old song.” On “Love Tastes Like Strawberries” Somi revels in a more sensual side of Makeba in a duet with American jazz singer Gregory Porter, who adds warm tones to her smoldering vocals. She also reunites with renowned Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo on “Jike’lemaweni” and taps Afrobeat star Seun Kuti, son of the legendary Fela Kuti, on the rhythmic “Milele.”
“Miriam Makeba reminds us of what it is to survive and thrive despite the forces that are against us,” Somi says. “I’m thrilled to invite people to remember that blueprint to survival and storytelling.” — Lissette Corsa