Vocalist Somi (Kakoma) was born in Illinois to Rwandan and Ugandan parents, writes Nicky Schrire. In her previous records and in her music at large, she has fully embraced her African heritage, weaving the vibrancy of the culture throughout. In Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba, to be released in July 2021, she sets her sights on South Africa and the beloved singer, songwriter and activist Miriam Makeba.
“Pata Pata”, inspired by a dance with the same name, was written by Miriam Makeba (sources say Jerry Ragovoy was credited after a re-recording was issued in 1967) and is strongly associated with her musical legacy. The original recordings of the tune are upbeat, appropriate for bodies swaying in motion in a crowded, township shebeen. Like other tunes from the South African jazz subgenre, the harmonic motion is simple (comprising three chords) and the strength of the song lies in the jaunty groove, a necessity for dancing.
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Somi’s reimagining of “Pata Pata” sees the fixed groove removed, the tempo slowed down to rubato, and a reshuffling and reharmonisation of the harmonic underpinnings. This sounds like a bicycle having its wheels removed, a recipe for disaster. However, the effects of such bold and creative changes are enthralling.
The song is given space to breathe, a contemporary sheen thanks to sparse electronic vocal effects, and a poignancy that is fitting given that Makeba suffered a heart attack while singing this very song in a 2008 concert, passing away shortly thereafter. The reharmonisation, leaning towards minor colours, adds to a sense of yearning, perhaps mirroring Makeba’s longing for South Africa while exiled in America. The choral voices give a tip of the hat to church or gospel music which is a genre that is often incorporated into South African jazz, specifically that from Cape Town composers (examples are in Abdullah Ibrahim’s “The Wedding”, Kyle Shepherd’s “Zimology”, and Paul Hanmer’s “Hymn for the Ballies”).
In analysing Somi’s interpretation of this song, it’s important to note that she has penned an original musical “Dreaming Zenzile” (Zenzile was Makeba’s Xhosa name), which will premiere later in 2021. The use of a string quartet (beautifully arranged by Toru Dodo) and spoken word allude to the song’s existence within a larger piece. While the excerpts of Makeba speaking in Somi’s re-arrangement give the song a theatrical air, it also, even inadvertently, pays homage to the original rendition which includes Makeba breaking from song long enough to explain exactly what “Pata Pata” is:
“Pata Pata is the name of a dance we do down Johannesburg way,
And everybody starts to move as soon as Pata Pata starts to play.
Every Friday and Saturday night, it’s Pata Pata time.
The dance keeps going all night long, ‘til the morning sun begins to shine”
This version of “Pata Pata” might not make you break into dance, but it will move you. There is a freedom in the interpretation, a reverence in the thoughtful arrangement, and Makeba’s spirit present throughout as her music is celebrated today.
LINK: Somi’s website