LATE South African singer Miriam Makeba remains an inspiration 14 years after her death, prompting jazz artist Somi to pay tribute with new twists on the anti-apartheid icon’s greatest hits.
Makeba, who emerged from a Black township to global fame with songs like “Pata Pata” and “Malaika” and spent three decades in exile for fighting white minority rule, set an example through her life as much as through her music, Somi said.
“You can put on a record and still feel called to arms,” the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter said in an interview in between rehearsals for her weekend Pretoria show.
Born in the U.S. state of Illinois to parents from Rwanda and Uganda, Somi, 40, said she created her album “Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba” as a “love letter” to her idol.
Zenzile was Makeba’s first name. The album melds new versions of Makeba’s material with original compositions by Somi. It was released on March 4, when Makeba would have turned 90, and launched at the Apollo Theatre in New York.
For Somi, Makeba’s struggle resonates with current racial and social justice battles, such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and other countries, and the 2020 EndSARS protests that shook Nigeria.
Somi, who in 2021 became the first woman of African descent to receive a Grammy nomination in a jazz category – for the album “Holy Room: Live at Alte Oper” – said she felt Makeba had blazed a trail for younger generations.
“The space-making she did on our behalf … as the first African artist to show up on the global cultural stage, we are all indebted to her,” she said.
“I would like to believe that she would be delighted to see how much more of the continent is being seen and heard. To know that we are actually having a seat at the table these days in a new way.”
Somi enthused her young South African audience on Sunday, dazzling the jubilant crowd with powerful vocals on a smoky low-lit stage.
“I love the fact that she really reinvigorated songs that we already know and love,” said Mthokozisi Khanyile, buzzing after the show.