According to popular convention, South Africa was invented during the ‘80s. During the ‘80s, the Ladysmith Black Mambazo band was on Saturday Night Live, the stars of the rock and rap worlds were all about not playing Sun City, and the activist college kids were determined to “Free Nelson Mandela” (this was before Tibet was invented during the ‘90s). The truth, of course, is that Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne did not collectively “discover” South African music for American audiences sometime in the mid-‘80s, and the tragedy of apartheid was well known long before Lethal Weapon 2. Way back in the late ‘50s, singer Miriam Makeba, boosted by Harry Belafonte, burst onto the American music scene and gave many Americans their first exposure to African pop music.
By fusing traditional styles with slick pop, Makeba was able to bring African music to the mainstream, even scoring a top 20 hit, “Pata Pata”, in the late ‘60s. Although she sang for a mainstream audience, Makeba was one of the most outspoken figures in pop music: she was banished from her homeland after a searing indictment of South African apartheid, and her American recording career effectively ended after her marriage to Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. She outlasted both apartheid and a de facto ban in America, while helping pave the way for a greater worldwide awareness not only of her home country, but for the entire continent of Africa.
Certainly, Makeba has led an influential, and tumultuous, life, so it seems appropriate that she should be allowed her Reflections. On this new album of re-recorded new songs, Makeba eschews the fire and passion of her peak period and attempts a more relaxed approach to her old songs. Typically, it’s a bad idea for an artist to ransack their back catalogue and re-record their old tunes, but Makeba goes out of her way to select not only the obvious hits but also forgotten tracks like “Love Tastes Like Strawberries” and “Quit It”. The album does not play like “greatest hits re-recorded” but like a private concert, with Makeba mixing in a few classics with a few personal favorites. The energy level is lower, and there are no explicitly political moments beyond the Hugh Masakela penned “African Convention”, but the relaxed nature of the album allows Makeba to give the material a more personal feel.
“World music” fans may be disappointed at this album, as Makeba only occasionally performs “African” songs. Yes, “Iyaguduza” is a slick Afro-pop number with a deep group and some bright horn charts, but “Comme une Symphonie D’Amour” is a French torch ballad and “Xica Da Silva” is pure bossa nova. No style of music, or language, seems outside Makeba’s range. The album highlight “Love Tastes Like Strawberries”, a forgotten Bacharach-esque song from the ‘60s, could convince a listener that she could have taken Dionne Warwick’s place at a moment’s notice. By indulging in these different genres from different parts of the world, Makeba practices a true form of world music.
The crucial stumbling block for many listeners may be the album’s very professional production. The sound is very polished, and a little sterile, and the gentler songs suffer because of it. The closing “Where Are You Going?” sounds like it could be played right after Norah Jones on a soft rock radio station, while the bouncier “I Shall Sing” appears in a bloated seven minute version sunk by a proficient, but entirely unnecessary, flute solo. The more popular tracks, particularly “Pata Pata” and “Ring Bell”, suffer in comparison with the well-known versions. Even when the songs can turn bland, Makeba is able to salvage miscalculated productions with her still commanding voice. Her version of “Mas Que Nada” had the potential to turn into easy listening pudding, but Makeba produces a very soulful take on the well-worn bossa nova standard by exploring her voice’s deeper registers.
Once in a while, the slick production even works to the album’s benefit. The radio-friendly sheen given to “African Convention” transforms a rousing dance song into a call for African unity. Without the ‘70s funk production, “Quit It” would come off as a dated anti-drug screed. With the Mayfield-eque production, “Quit It” gains a gritty, seductive appeal.
This studio polish, however, exists for commercial and not aesthetic reasons. Reflections wants to re-imagine Makeba’s eclectic music into a coherent, accessible album for Baby Boomers looking for something a little different but also a little familiar. Certainly a decent anthology of her classic tracks would make a better introduction to Miriam Makeba than Reflections, but the best of these re-recordings prove that Makeba can create smooth, almost-marketable pop music without losing her individuality. Reflections may not be essential Makeba, but it is a worthy addition to her catalogue.