• Liz Publika

"Pata Pata" by Miriam Makeba and the Insane Range of Her Music Catalogue


I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across the YouTube link to Mariam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” posted by a friend. Curious about the title, I clicked on it. And down the rabbit hole I went.

Miriam Makeba (1932 – 2008) — affectionately referred to as Mama Africa and The Empress of African Song — was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, United Nations goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist, with some ridiculously finely-tuned vocals. Though Makeba is associated with a number of genres, including jazz and world music, it was her Afro-pop material and "Pata Pata" in particular that made her an international star.

According to different sources, the track was originally recorded and released either in 1956 or 1959 by Makeba's girl group, The Skylarks. But, in 1967, when Makeba had already established herself as a successful singer in the United States, she re-recorded "Pata Pata" with famous songwriter and producer Jerry Ragovoy (1930 - 2011) and added an English-spoken part. The song peaked at #12 on the Billboard chart that same year.

Miriam Makeba (1969)
Miriam Makeba (1969)

Meaning “Touch Touch” in Xhosa — one of the official languages of South Africa and Zimbabwe — “Pata Pata” is also the name of the dance style that was popular at local unlicensed establishments called shebeens of Johannesburg's Townships in the mid-1950s. Makeba performed at venues like these since she was a youngster.

According to Peter Freyer writing for the New Internationalist in 1981:

“In one scene, as shebeen queen of the 'Back of the Moon' shebeen, she stood absolutely still, back to the audience, white dress marking every inch of her superb body. The tsotsis on stage — small time criminals, drinkers, gamblers, dancers — stood equally transfixed. Everyone waited for the cue. It came at last, with the Matshikiza sound of the kwela* as Miriam swung into her dance, the song, and turned slowly to face her audience, who rocked and swayed with her.”

In one version of the dance, the male dancer crouches before his partner and pats her body to the rhythm of the music as he rises up and she spins around, making hip circles. In another version, the male dancers stand in a row with their arms extended out to the front, palms to the floor, while the women pat each male in turn in a manner resembling body-frisking, after which the men do the same to the women. And, in an entirely different interpretation of the dance, the focus is placed on choreography.

But the dance was probably not the sole inspiration for the title. Makeba’s "Pata Pata" melody was based on an instrumental "Phatha Phatha" by Shumi Ntutu and Isaac Nkosi, who based the first eight bars of their track on “an earlier song entitled ‘Noma Kumnyama (Zulu: ‘Even If It's Dark’) by the Dundee Wandering Singers, an mbube group led by Alson Novemu Mkhize.”

On the night of her passing, Miriam Makeba performed "Pata Pata" just before she collapsed on stage.

“Pata Pata” Lyrics Featuring English:

Saguquka sathi ‘bheka’

Nants’ iPata Pata

Saguquka sathi ‘bheka’

Nants’ iPata Pata

Yiyo mama, yiyo mama

Nants’ iPata Pata

Yiyo mama, yiyo mama

Nants’ iPata Pata Pata Pata is the name of the dance We do down Johannesburg way And everybody starts to move As soon as Pata Pata starts to play Saguquka sathi ‘bheka’ Nants’ iPata Pata Saguquka sathi ‘bheka’ Nants’ iPata Pata Yiyo mama, yiyo mama Nants’ iPata Pata Yiyo mama, yiyo mama Nants’ iPata Pata Every Friday and Saturday Night It’s Pata Pata time The dance keeps going all night long Til’ the morning sun begins to shine

Aside from her incredible career, unusual life, and her many accomplishments, she was also the first African ever to win a Grammy. And if you have a chance to check out her insane music catalogue in depth, you’ll know why Miriam Makeba has the honor.

"Kulala" by Miriam Makeba

"Qongqothwane," or "The Click Song" by Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba - Oxgam (LIVE)

Feature Stories

VOL. 18 


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