Miriam Makeba

Her Essential Recordings: The Empress of African Song

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The packaging on this 40-song, two-CD anthology of this major South African artist -- most of it taken from recordings spanning the mid-'50s to late '60s, though there are a few from the 1970s too -- leaves something to be desired. The tracks are sequenced so that they jump back and forth chronologically, and while there are well-written liner notes of decent length, the song listings themselves do not spell out the dates and sources for each recording. That makes it necessary to cumbersomely shift back and forth between the notes and listings to figure out what part of Miriam Makeba's career's being represented by what's coming through the speakers. Whether or not you're one to get bugged by such details, however, there's no denying that this set does contain a lot of good music, even if its sampling is rather scattershot. Her most famous recording, her 1967 hit version of "Pata Pata," is here, but some tracks go all the way back to mid-'50s South African recordings with the Manhattan Brothers. Again, chronological sequencing would have really helped, but taken all together, you do get a sense of the considerable ground she covered in the 1950s and 1960s, from somewhat dated (but charmingly hokey) jazz-pop backings to earthy rhythmic recordings that drew considerably more from indigenous South African styles. There are also hints of Latin music, torch jazz songs, duets with Harry Belafonte, gospel, and even a bit of rock & roll. The constants, however, are Makeba's reliably mellifluous, spirited vocals, as well as (with only a few exceptions) a fine eye for integrating South African folk and popular styles with some Western pop sensibilities. It might not be the most coherently assembled Makeba compilation, but you'd have a hard time beating it for the amount of diverse quality music it stuffs into two discs.

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