To Mama Africa with love

Grammy-nominated musician Somi launched her new album reimagining Miriam Makeba with a live performance that amplified the work made in honour of the late activist and musician.

It’s not every day that you experience a live performance that feels like a sonic showpiece. The State Theatre in Pretoria hosted the official launch of Somi Kakoma’s fifth studio album, Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba, on 27 March.

With African roots, her music is directly influenced by her Ugandan and Rwandan heritage. Currently residing in New York City, she became one of the first artists to be part of the historic relaunch of jazz imprint Okeh Records under Sony Music when she signed in 2013.

After reading Miriam Makeba’s autobiography, the artist – who goes by Somi – was inspired by Makeba’s life and began a journey into the wonder of Mama Africa, as she was affectionately known. The album is a beautiful ode to Makeba’s life, activism and rare talent. Featuring her most popular songs, Somi and a few of her artistic collaborators brought it to life on stage.

27 March 2022: Somi on stage at the State Theatre in Pretoria.

Zenzile features South African musicians Msaki, Thandiswa Mazwai and Nduduzo Makhathini, to name a few. Grammy Award-winning singer Angélique Kidjo also features on the popular tune, The Retreat Song (Jike’lemaweni). Concertgoers, however, had the privilege of seeing special guests who are not on the album Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and Zoe Modiga perform on stage.

“The first time I met Somi, I was still a music student in Cape Town a few years back. Since our first meeting she has really been a bigger sister to me, being invited to perform on stage with her was such a fulfilling and spirited moment,” said Modiga, who will be performing at the North Sea Jazz festival in the Netherlands in July.

Mabuse added that Somi was able to maintain the essence of the music Makeba made. “She recognised the music in the album but she also infused who Somi is in them, and for me that was very special,” said the jazz musician.

‘Heart of the struggle’

Being in the theatre for the first time in almost three years was surreal, the air fused with excitement for the sold-out show. The chatter among the crowd included a sense of disbelief and passion: “We had to get tickets for this show,” said one concertgoer. “Did you see her performance at the Apollo Theater last week?” asked another, referring to the album launch concert in Harlem, New York, in March.

As the show began, a moment of silence was shared in Makeba’s memory. The stage slowly lit up and as the soothing sounds from the piano started to play, Somi moved in unison with the keys to perform Umhome. The artist captivated the auditorium with her rendition of the classic song. 

27 March 2022: Somi on stage.

Next up was Khuluma featuring Msaki, another definitive song in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. “I love this one in particular because it gets to the heart of the struggle,” said Somi from the stage.

Msaki, who performed with Somi at the Apollo, said that being part of this album and tour has been incredible. 

“I have maximum respect because all these arrangements she has made completely her own and situating myself in that to pay homage to this giant icon has also been difficult to break down. For Somi to do an entire project honouring her is something special for her, but it’s also really something special for us, to bring Mama’s music back to our consciousness in such a real way.”

27 March 2022: From left, Somi on stage with Msaki.

The spirit of Mama Africa

Tracing childhood memories, Somi said: “I don’t really remember the first time I heard Mama Miriam’s voice but I definitely know I grew up with this particular song, because it is in Swahili.” Her beautiful performance of Malaika preceded Lakutshon’ilanga by her and Mabuse with his flute in hand.

“You could tell that the people were [responding] to something. Some of the people that were there, young people, probably didn’t even know about Mama’s music … We also never heard some of the music that Somi had brought to the fore and the reaction and the response to the music because of what Somi did was overwhelming,” he said.

Somi described Mazwai as her sister. And when the musicians collaborated on stage the performance had the auditorium stilled to silence. 

The last song was the perfect ending to honour the icon that was. A montage of photos of Makeba appeared on-screen, backgrounded by an interview she did in 1969 while in Finland, during apartheid. And then, a familiar melody began to play, Saguquka sathi bheka nants’ iPata Pata are the lyrics. Overjoyed, the crowd sings and dances along to the popular song. With Mama Africa’s spirit in the room, Somi thanked the crowd.

“Something of history was made that night,” said Modiga.

27 March 2022: Somi performs a song with the artists featured on the album. 

‘A beautiful thing’

Asking how he thinks Makeba would have responded to Somi’s reworking of her music, Mabuse said, “She probably would have been in tears.” He added that Makeba’s contribution to society has been recognised through the music Somi made with Zenzile.

Having benefitted from the experience, Mabuse added that Makeba was central to all African musicians being recognised on a global level. Sharing a special bond, Mabuse was privileged to produce one of Makeba’s last albums, Welela. “I travelled with her all over the world, the United Kingdom, Italy and other parts of Europe. I respected her activism and now with Somi I love that same pan-African approach she has to music.”

For Msaki, the magnitude of Makeba’s legacy is difficult to articulate. “She has given me pan-African inspiration, you know, diasporic inspiration in terms of connection with people on the ground and being there and trying to meet them in their languages and in their nuances. Once I realised that she was singing in all these different languages, from Portuguese to French and even Swahili, inspired me as well to learn and also try to develop that sort of blueprint in my own music. It’s a beautiful thing.”

She acknowledged how, for Makeba, navigating the Americas and Europe as a citizen as well as someone with a story to tell was not easy. “We’re able to move around by choice. She was exiled and then active in the community, and then she was the darling of the United States and then an enemy of the state. Today, we are moving around because we are able to do so freely and we are doing this because she was able to enable these ideas, being a global superstar from South Africa.”

This continued artistic legacy, at the meeting point of music and activism, is beautifully expressed by Msaki as one that will endure across generations: “We don’t have the same kind of problems but we still need and hope to have the same kind of bravery that she had.”

27 March 2022: An emotional Somi after her performance at the State Theatre.
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