Vinyl Retentive: Miriam Makeba

Vinyl Retentive: Miriam Makeba

In Vinyl Retentive, A.V. Clubbers share what we find while crate-digging in our own houses.

Miriam Makeba

"Pata Pata" b/w "The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men"

Reprise, 1967

Format: 7-inch single

File Under: Afropop anthem

Key track: "Pata Pata"

You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs–and you can't make Vinyl Retentive without breaking a few records:

Despite the connotation of Vinyl Retentive, I've never been the kind of record collector who gingerly bags and archives his vinyl. In fact, my home is littered with stacks of loose LPs that probably haven't seen the insides of their sleeves for, oh, five or six years–and my hundreds of 45s are piled in teetering heaps on top of my bookshelves. While pawing through those heaps looking for prime VR material this weekend, my brittle old copy of Miriam Makeba's "Pata Pata" made a leap for freedom, then fell seven feet to shatter against my hardwood floor. As you can tell from the above photo, there ain't no putting that egg back together again.

Miriam Makeba's 50-plus-year career has been just as precarious and risk-taking. Known to millions as Mother Africa or Mama Afrika, Makeba is famous for her associations: she shared a Grammy with Harry Belafonte in 1966; was married to the legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela and later the Black Power firebrand Stokely Carmichael; and sang with Paul Simon on his Graceland tour. But one thing that seems to get a bit overshadowed by her regal stature and years of political and cultural activism–which saw her blacklisted in America and even exiled from her South African homeland–is the bone-deep, soul-buoying beauty of her early international hit, "Pata Pata."

Here, dear reader, is where I stop pretending that access to Wikipedia and an A.V. Club badge make me some kind of authority on Miriam Makeba. In all honesty, I don't know much about her, or about African music as a whole. But I know this: When I first heard "Pata Pata" on some random CD comp a few years ago, I fell in love. I tracked down the 45–I might've ordered it from Chicago's awesome Dusty Groove–and shelled out the 3 or 4 bucks plus postage. I've always believed that some songs just look, feel, and sound better on scratchy ol' vinyl. I'm not some lo-fi Luddite. I like vinyl because it's an artifact, a talisman, a link to the past; in fact, it's the exact same slab of plastic that was once warmed by someone's grubby hand while they lowered it onto their own turntable 20 or 40 or 60 years ago. Really, I have nothing against our glorious downloading, file-sharing age. But some songs just beg to be dug up and rediscovered on wax, and "Pata Pata," at least to me, is overwhelmingly one of them.

Of course, the stream of "Pata Pata" above is from a download–think of it as the ghost of my fractured 45. But even disembodied and digitized, you get the idea. Few songs put a smile on my face and spaghetti in my spine like "Pata Pata": Adapted from a Xhosa folksong Makeba sang as a child, the record has a swaying pulse pumped by a ticklish polyrhythm and a pure, cleansing sparseness. And Makeba's giddy voice is like some joyous hyperventilation. Check out that little squeal she lets out around the 2:10 mark–man, I just get shivers of glee. And, like so many of the best dance songs throughout history, "Pata Pata" is basically about itself: "Pata Pata is the name of a dance / we did down Johannesburg way / Everybody starts to move / as soon as Pata Pata begins to play." Well, there you have it. Makeba recorded a funked-up version of "Pata Pata" in 2000 that's pretty much what you'd expect it to be–but it doesn't in any way diminish the original's ability to make this jaded, crabby bastard grin like an ice-cream-dosed kid.

Current whereabouts: Now 76 and retired following a farewell tour in 2005, Makeba surely has an entire wall of her home covered in all the medals and awards she's won over the years–both for her efforts to eradicate Apartheid and for her gorgeous, ageless music.

Availability: A quick search of eBay shows a handful of copies of "Pata Pata" on 45 for sale between $2 and $7. In fact, I think I'll scoop one up right now. As for my old broken copy: What's a decent funeral for a treasured record that died far before its time?

Filed Under: Music

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