Sunday 23 December 2012

Miriam Makeba on 78rpm (1955-1959)

I promised after my first post of less common material by Miriam Makeba — Tracks Less Travelled — that I would follow up with more, equally rare, sounds by the singer on 78 rpm. Today, fifteen months later, we feature that second compilation. The tracks here all come from the period before Makeba left South Africa in August 1959 and in many ways trace the growth of her early career — first as an individual (after many recordings with the Manhattan Brothers) and then with the all-female, close-harmony groups: the Sunbeams and the Skylarks. To my knowledge, none of the material below (save for one track) has been reissued in any subsequent format. Most of this material has not been heard in almost 55 years.

Makeba was an icon and pioneer of what has come to be called "world music" long before the term even crossed the marketing desks of record companies. While I loathe the term, I wonder if it in fact accurately and appropriately describes an artist like Makeba who did not restrict herself to one culture but drew material from many languages and styles worldwide: Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, English, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Guinean and so on. She truly was a "world singer".

On the other hand, the cynical side of me also recognises that those languages just happen to correspond with the particular places where her records were pressed and sold. So I have often wondered if her eclectic approach was not just an artistic choice, but also the result of pressure from international record companies to increase global sales.

I compiled the collection below in chronological order based on the matrix numbers of each recording and the results not only trace the evolution but also paint a portrait of an artist (and indeed a culture) open to a broad range of stylistic influences — even before her departure from South Africa. Calypso, gospel, close-harmony American popular music of the 1940s and 50s, but most significantly American jazz; all combined with local traditions to establish an eclectic palette.

The source of the calypso is not hard to pin point. Makeba's first two tracks in this style (recorded in 1957) are cover versions from Harry Belafonte's classic and influential album Calypso from 1956 (the first album to sell over one million copies). A fortuitous sampling — two years later it would be Belafonte himself launching Makeba's global career.

While there are few “hits” in the material below, there are still some significant gems and certainly the whole compilation, to me, has a really pleasant structure that would satisfy any mood, particularly at this time of year. The final few tracks with their significant gospel leanings seem most appropriate to the season. For the more popular material by Makeba from this period I would highly recommend the two CDs compiled by Rob Allingham and Albert Ralulimi: Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks (1956-1959) Vol.1 (CDGSP 3130) and Vol. 2 (CDGSP 3131). (Be sure to get the 2008 reissues each boasting five additional tracks and superior sound quality.)

Makeba with the Manhattan Brothers, c1953
Makeba began her career singing with her second nephew, Zweli Kunene, and his group the Cuban Brothers possibly as early as 1952. It was with the Cubans that Makeba made her first recordings, at that time, for EMI. In her book My Story Makeba maintains that it was while the Cubans were performing at the Donaldson Centre in Orlando East that she was spotted by Nathan Mdledle, lead vocalist of the Manhattan Brothers — South Africa's most popular vocal group at that time. Joe Mogotsi's account of the meeting (in his biography Matindane edited by Lars Rasmussen) is slightly different. He claims that Makeba approached Mdledle at the Donaldson Centre and only after a second interaction, did they come see her sing and then asked her to audition. Whichever the fact, in 1953, at the age of 21, Makeba joined Nathan Mdledle, Joe Mogotsi, Ronnie Majola and Rufus Khoza — the Manhattan Brothers — as their single female singer replacing Emily Kwenane, who was looking to pursue a solo career. Mdledle opted for her English given name as a stage name rather than Zenzi Makeba "as it sounded better" and Miriam Makeba became a star. (Makeba)

Mackay Davashe's Laku Tshon iLanga was her first big hit with the Manhattans but not her first recording. (That may have been Baby Ntsoare.) Gallo had sent the recording to a number of companies overseas and subsequently requested that the group re-record the song in English for an international market. With the help of American composer, Tom Glazer, Lovely Lies was the result pressed on the London label. Though Makeba was not a fan of the new lyrics — she felt that much of the core social drama of the original had been removed. Nevertheless, the song became their first big international hit and also the first South African song to enter the Billboard Top 100 in the United States, reaching position 45 in March of 1956. (Allingham) Because the composing process was generally quite fluid, Magotsi claimed that the Manhattans had an arrangement to share any composing fees with all involved regardless of who got the final credit. Davashe honored this arrangement for the original release but then conveniently failed to do the same for the English version. (Rasmussen) The credits in the latter went to: Davashe / Glazer.

Makeba talking about Lovely Lies in her first book also incorrectly stated that the recording was unusual as blacks were forbidden from singing in English. But according to Rob Allingham, this was not true the Manhattan Brothers had recorded a number of tracks in English in the 1940s and perhaps the lack of support for music in English by blacks may have been attributed to commercial concerns. Makeba's hits with the Manhattans include Baby Ntsoare, Laku Tshon 'iLanga, Tula Ndivile, Ntyilo Ntyilo, amongst others. All can be heard on the CD: The Very Best of the Manhattan Brothers (CDZAC 77) compiled by Rob Allingham.

Sometime in 1954, Makeba left the Manhattans to join Alf Herbert's touring show African Jazz and Variety featuring Dorothy Masuka, Dolly Rathebe and Lionel Pillay amongst others (Rasmussen has the date as 1954, Makeba has it as 1956) and then was again reunited with the Manhattans on Ian Bernhardt's variety show Township Jazz in 1955. She also recorded tracks under her own name for Gallotone in that same year.

The Skylarks: Mummy Girl Nketle, Mary Rabotapi, Makeba, Abigail Kubeka, 1956 from My Story

Early in 1956 Sam Alcock at Gallo encouraged Makeba to form an all female vocal group to compete with similar acts at Troubadour and Trutone. She with her half-sister Mizpah and Johanna Radebe recorded two tracks as the Sunbeams on GRC's Tropik label. (Makeba) The record sold well and the group was brought back into the studio but this time as the Skylarks on Gallo's Gallotone label. The women continued to record under both names for both labels. (GRC was an affiliate of Gallo's hence the common matrix numbers.) For the second session Mizpah was replaced by Mary Rabotapi who was fourteen at the time. The trio then expanded to four with the recruitment of Mummy Girl Nketle. Helen van Rensburg succeeded Johanna Radebe and in late 1957 Van Rensburg was subsequently replaced by Abigail Kubeka who was 16 at the time. As Allingham reveals in the liner notes to the Skylarks CD, the frequent changes to the group were all Makeba's doing. As Mary Rabotapi recalls; "She was the boss. [She] held the recording contract and she was the eldest [...]. Miriam wants hard workers, if you are slow on your feet, she'll take somebody else..." (Allingham)

The group was now set for many of the classic recordings of the late 1950s. On occasion a fifth female voice in Nomonde Sihawu would join the quartet with Sam Ngakane on bass. The Skylarks were prolific and in three years became South Africa's most popular vocal group recording over a hundred tracks and rivaling any of Gallo's other major acts. (Allingham)

Mogosti and Makeba rehearsing for King Kong, c1958. Source Ian Berry, Drum in Mona Glasser
Between 1957 and 1958 planning and rehearsals began on what would become the biggest hit of 1959, South Africa's first all-black African jazz opera: King Kong. The show was produced and directed by Leon Gluckman with music written by Todd Matshikza and included some of the key artists and musicians of the day. Makeba played the lead female role as Joyce, the girlfriend of the legendary and tragic boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, who was played by Nathan Mdledle. Other members of both the Manhattans Brothers and the Skylarks including Joe Mogotsi and Abigail Kubeka were also featured in the cast. The show opened to racially mixed audiences at the Wits Great Hall in February 1959 and then toured the country with much success for the next six months.

Meanwhile, Lionel Rogosin, a young American filmmaker had spotted Makeba performing in African Jazz and Variety in 1958 and recruited her to sing in his clandestine film about township life in South Africa: Come Back Africa (named for the ANC's freedom call Mayibuye iAfrica). The film was accepted into the 1959 Venice Film Festival and Rogosin invited Makeba to join him at the premier in Venice. Makeba applied for a passport to travel abroad and after many months of waiting and what she later described as a harassing interview she received one and subsequently left South Africa in August 1959. The film won the critic's award at Venice. (Makeba)

A few days prior to her departure, on August 12, Makeba joined the Skylarks in a scheduled studio session at Gallo and recorded four tunes. Two days later they returned and recorded ten more — her final session in South Africa. The very last song, aptly titled Miriam's Goodbye to Africa, was only released after she had already left, but became one of the Skylarks most successful tracks. (Allingham)

Just as Makeba had left South Africa after the success of King Kong, so to did the Manhattan Brothers go into exile after the UK production in 1961. In Joe Mogotsi's biography, he recalls some hard times during that period and reflects with some bitterness on how in 1964 their London manager had tried to make contact with Belafonte and Makeba in the hopes that they would be invited to the US. No invitation came... "Although Miriam knew the Brothers were in London, she used black Americans as her supporting act in her shows." (Rasmussen) In her defense though, it should be noted that Belafonte heavily criticized Makeba when she encouraged Letta Mbulu to come to the US in 1965, as he saw her as competition. Magotsi though had speculated that the cold shoulder may have been due to the fact that much of Makeba's early repertoire had included the Manhattans material as her own: "She had worked with the Brothers for many years in South Africa before going to the States and she must have anticipated a conflict of interest over the copyright of our compositions. In the States she was launched [...] singing songs like Qonggqotwane (The Click Song), but we were never credited as composers or even acknowledged by her. Our contributions to South African music went unnoticed." (Rasmussen)

Makeba continued to receive royalties on Manhattan Brothers material until they challenged her in 1993. In a remarkable letter of acknowledgement, included in Magotsi's biography, Makeba confirmed and returned the rights to the Manhattan Brothers of these songs: Qongqotwane (The Click Song), Jikela Emaweni, Mamoriri, Magwalandini and Ndixolele. Though she refused to give up Amampondo, which the Manhattans had recorded in 1958, but interestingly her version just happened to be included in the classic 1997 film When We Were Kings about the life of Muhammad Ali. (Rasmussen)

Makeba on cover of Polish magazine, Nowa Weis, 1969
Regardless of these rights issues, Makeba's importance as an anti-apartheid figure is significant and well-documented, but I really do not think people, especially in South Africa, even begin to grasp how singularly important she was to this movement and the global image of South Africa during these turbulent times. Before Mandela, Makeba was the face of South Africa to a global audience. 1960 is a watershed year in South African history. It is the year that Makeba released her first album in the United States, Europe and many other countries, but more importantly it is also the year of the Sharpeville massacre. The shootings were covered in the international press like no other prior event in South African history. The coverage sat on the front page of the New York Times for almost two months and during this time, Makeba was performing in New York, on US national television, and was broadly covered and reviewed in the US press. For many Americans she became the single face, literally, of a distant country in crisis.

compiled by flatinternational for Electric Jive

01) Pass Office Special
ABC 14045
02) Hoenene
ABC 14046
Miriam Makeba
Gallotone Jive Jive, GB 2134

Pass Office Special refers to the pass book that all black Africans had to carry during the height of the apartheid years. According to Rob Allingham solo recordings by Makeba were advertised by Gallo as early as October 1955. It is my measured guess that these two tracks are from that period. Each of these tunes, though, were hits for Troubadour’s Dorothy Masuka in 1956 and are featured on her compilation CD: Hamba Notsokolo. Pass Office Special was released by Masuka as the more up-beat Ngi Hamba Ngedwa. On the CD Masuka is credited as the composer for both tunes and Makeba gets the credit line on the Gallotone 78 rpms. While Makeba has notoriously claimed others songs as her own, I am almost confident that both these recordings predate Masuka’s versions. Though rivals, Masuka and Makeba were fast friends and often practiced songs together. Makeba gives this account of their relationship in her biography: "Dorothy and I are always singing: backstage at the shows, on the train, late at night at our hotel, everywhere! She is smart and fast. Dorothy also composes beautiful melodies. Always, she is thinking of a new one. When one pops into her head, she comes to me and says, "Hey Miriam! Take this part." I hum it, and she improvises by humming another part. It is too bad that we cannot record together, but we have contracts with different record companies. Still, we have fun together." (Makeba) Makeba would go on to “cover” a number of other Masuka songs during her career sometimes as her own compositions.

03) Dube
ABC 14406
04) Hela Mama
ABC 14407
The Skylarks
Gallotone Jive Jive, GB 2405

These two recordings appear to be the very first issued by the Skylarks, who in this case were a vocal trio with Makeba, Joanna Radebe and Mary Rabotapi. General Duze is on guitar. (Allingham)

05) Ndadibana Notsotsi
ABC 14663
06) Musu Kuhamba
ABC 14664
The Skylarks with accompaniment
Gallotone Jive Jive, GB 2503

This is the second disc released by the Skylarks. Musu Kuhamba is a much slower version of Dorothy Masuka’s hit Ufikizolo which is also featured on her CD Hamba Notsokolo mentioned above. Allingham claims that Makeba was covering the Masuka song here even though the credit goes to Makeba on the disc label. (Allingham)

07) Africa
ABC 15310
08) Uyangonwabisa
ABC 15311
The Sunbeams
Tropik, DC 645

I had read that Makeba and the Skylarks had also recorded for GRC as the Sunbeams but until very recently was not able to locate a disc. I came across this find in a record store in Cape Town. It is not clear why the two names were used for the group's recordings with different companies but Makeba maintains that it was meant to give the appearance of a rivalry. (Makeba) Both GRC and Gallo shared recording studios and thus the matrixes are continuous. The arrangers however were different and according to Allingham gave the GRC material a rather "slap-dash quality". (Allingham)

09) Ndakugcinga
ABC 15751
The Skylarks
USA, USA 301

Ndakugcinga comes from the same session and is the b-side of Kutheni Sithandwa. Both tunes are variations on Harry Belafonte’s Jamaica Farewell and his international hit the Banana Boat Song (respectively). The songs signal the beginning of the influence of Belafonte’s album Calypso which became a worldwide hit in 1956 and the first record to sell over a million copies. In Makeba’s version of Jamaica Farewell, Kingston Town is replaced by Sophiatown. According to Allingham the session included Miriam Makeba, Abigail Kubeka, Sam 'Vandi' Leballo, Mummy Girl Nketle, Mary Rabotapi (vocals), Almon Memela (guitar), Eddie Wyngaart (bass) and Dan Hill (bongos). The USA disc is a 1965 reissue of an earlier Gallotone release GB 2608. The influence of calypso in general would continue into a number of other tracks some of which are featured below.

10) Sondela Sitete 
ABC 15845
11) Dibanani Mawethu
ABC 15846
The Skylarks
Gallotone Jive Jive, GB 2689

12) Go Calypso
ABC 15932
13) Indoda Ihambile
ABC 15933
The Skylarks
Gallotone Jive, GB 2664

Two tracks showing again the influence of calypso. Go Calypso opens with a conversation in which Makeba mentions in Afrikaans (or tsotsitaal) that the recording is taking place on June 26 which at that time happened to be the 5th anniversary of the start of the Defiance Campaign (in 1952) and the 2nd anniversary of the signing of the Freedom Charter (in 1955). June 26th 1957, the apparent day of the recording, was marked as Protest Day. "Later generations will remember June 26th, 1957 as the day on which the workers stayed at home in the year of the bus boycott, in the year of the treason trial, in the year when the people hit back. June 26 is the people's day, born of travail and tempered in the heat of struggle. On that day the people dedicate themselves anew to the struggle for freedom." (from Fighting Talk, July 1957). Today this day is celebrated as Freedom Day in South Africa.

14) We Motsoala
ABC 16061
15) Mme Matsoale
ABC 16062
The Flashes
Gallotone Jive, GB 2717

I am almost convinced that these two tunes by the Flashes feature Makeba on lead vocal, though I have no evidence other than her voice to go by. I included the first track on my earlier compilation mix here at Electric Jive: 78 Revolutions Per Minute: Majuba Jazz from Mra to Bra. Certainly the b-side track, Mme Matsoale, is one of the real gems of this compilation.

16) Let's Break Bread Together
ABC 17033
The Skylarks
New Sound, GB 2847

Let’s Break Bread Together is the b-side of the hit track Live Humble a tune penned by Gibson Kente. It seems that after the great success with Hush, a gospel-inspired tune recorded approximately three months earlier roughly in June 1958, the group worked again with Kente on a number of socially tinged songs in English, including the track Do Unto Others. The Skylarks would go on to record a number of other gospel flavored tunes composed by Kente in their final sessions with Makeba in 1959. The first third of the song is missing as the disc from which this track comes has a significant break.

17) Kisimus Time
ABC 17243
The Skylarks
New Sound, GB 2861

An appropriate tune for the season. This was probably recorded in December of 1958 and follows a tradition at Troubadour and Gallo where Christmas and New Year songs were recorded annually for holiday sales.

18) Motherless, Fatherless Child
ABC 17799
19) Gossiping Christians
ABC 17800
The Skylarks with Miriam Makeba
New Sound, GB 3315

20) Tremble
ABC 17811
21) Miriam's Goodbye to Africa (Breakfast Special)
ABC 17812
The Skylarks with Miriam Makeba
New Sound, GB 2958

The last four tunes all come from Makeba’s last two sessions at Gallo, on August 12th and 14th, 1959, before she would leave for Europe and then the USA. All above except Miriam’s Goodbye to Africa (by Reggie Msomi) were composed by Gibson Kente and have a distinct gospel influence. The session also included a number of other hits for example Miriam and Spokes’ Phata Phata, Uile Ngoane Batho (both with Spokes Mashiyane), Uyadela and Yini Madoda, amongst others. The group for these sessions included Makeba, Abigail Kubeka, Mummy Girl Nketle, Mary Rabotapi (vocals), Reggie Msomi (guitar), Johannes 'Chooks' Tshukudu (bass) and Louis Molubi (drums). On Miriam's Goodbye, Sam Ngakane is also included on vocals with Dan Hill on organ.

Kente's Motherless, Fatherless Child references Makeba's leaving of her young daughter, Bongi, as does Miriam's Goodbye which literally marks her departure from South Africa. She would be re-united with Bongi in the United States a year later. Miriam's Goodbye was not issued until she left South Africa and became one of the Skylarks' biggest hits. It is also featured on the New Sounds of Africa Vol.2 LP which can be viewed here at EJ. For more Skylarks material also check out New Sounds of Africa Vol.1.

I wanted to include Miriam's Goodbye to Africa in this compilation as it significantly marks the end of her South African career. But this tune is also quite common so I have chosen to leave the transfer in its raw state without any software clean-up. The Breakfast Special, as I have called it, really does give one a sense of how some of these 78 rpms have aged.

Have a wonderful Holiday and New Year!




  1. Wonderful stuff, Siemon - a great Christmas gift. I can't wait to hear the beautiful sounds!

    Many thanks for the detailed write-up. A most informative and fascinating read.
    Most sources just mention the mutual assistence between SA artists in exil. It's interesting to read about the rivalry, too.

    The Mediafire link is already gone, but they are superfast in blocking links these days. I had the same problem with many links, doesn't matter how rare and obscure the music is.

  3. Hi Siemon,

    What a fantastic post!
    Here's the period I prefer about Mariam Makeba
    Do have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year
    Best regards

  4. Absolutely brilliant!
    Great music, great detail of information, - ehh... just great!

  5. Good Stf electric-Jive


  6. Thought i had left a thanks, but can't see it...?

    So again - many thanks for this fantastic post and detailed write up, a true gift!

  7. Many thanks for all the kind comments!

  8. Muito obrigado pelo magnífico resgate dos primeiros registros da Miriam Makeba, grande intérprete e defensora dos direitos humanos. Valeu!!!

  9. Thank you for this wonderful post and all the best for this New Year

  10. This is fantastic--not just for the great music, but the excellent research and essay on it. Thanks very much for providing this kind of gift.

  11. Comrades

    This is certainly the most important musical resource on the history of popular music in Southern Africa, period. The "establishment" archives of the academies and the record companies, by shutting up the sounds in basements inaccessible to the rest of us, merely bury everything that is truly living about these joyful noises. You guys bring them back to life by bringing them back home where they belong - in the lives of ordinary Africans. The extensively researched notes which accompany the sounds not only provide context but provide one of the most well informed commentaries on these voices of the past anywhere.

    I have certainly developed an immeasurably enriched experience of the history and expression of my country and an ever fiercer love for the people who produced them. Thank you for taking seriously the implicit injuction of every vibrant cry made by the people of this land ever since they were robbed of it:




    All the best

  12. Well done with all of the work putting this collection together.


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