An Evening With Christian Nyampeta
A mixtape streaming temporarily on music platforms including iTunes, Spotify and Tidal, from 21 December 2020

7. Malaika

This song is certainly one of the many that would make up my “sonic biography”, to use a term by DJ and artist Ain Bailey, because it was often played on the radio when I was a child in Kigali. I am, of course, not the only one who will have heard Miriam Makeba’s song: Makeba’s rise to fame in South Africa during the 1950s, her subsequent success overseas in the 1960s, and her role in the global anti-apartheid movement are all fairly well documented. Indeed, Makeba is part of the sociography of entire generations in Africa and beyond: even in the States during racial segregation, she was perhaps the most prominent African performer within American popular culture. Her songs such as Pata Pata became radio hits, her records sold well and she regularly appeared on television. She was somewhat of a celebrity in 1960s America, appealing to the American mainstream regardless of the difficulties facing Black people in America.

My own cover of the song draws from the electrifying rendition sung by Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte on An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, their album from 1969. Aside from this joint studio album, Belafonte and Makeba appeared together live many times, something which is indicative of Makeba’s Pan-African practice of cultural intimacy and anti-imperial internationalism, whereby she would sing in a number of African languages and collaborate with fellow musicians from various African diasporas.

On her Live in Paris album, Makeba introduces the version of “Malaika” that appears there as a song from Tanzania. Malaika, a Kiswahili word meaning “angel” in English, is actually dedicated to human rights activist Stokely Carmichael, whom Makeba married in 1968 before the couple relocated to Ghana to avoid the difficulties they both faced as a result of their union: because of their association, Makeba wrongly came to be portrayed as an extremist and both endured poor treatment in the United States.

Makeba features in William Klein’s The Pan-African Festival of Algiers (1969) and is recorded nursing a child while rehearsing with Dorothy Masuka, who was herself in exile from what was then Rhodesia. This intimate collaboration renders the atmosphere of solidarity found in Algiers at that time, which itself had become a refuge for many freedom fighters fleeing political persecution. The festival, which was mandated by the Organisation of African Unity, offered a lasting cultural landmark in which alternatives to the imperial course of history were imagined, even if those alternatives were short-lived.

In any case, “Malaika” is a protest song, like many of Makeba’s songs, especially the ones featured on the An Evening With album, such as “Khawuleza”, the Xhosa title of “Hurry, Mama, Hurry!”, referring to situations in which children alert their mothers the authorities are coming, situations that are especially resonant and relevant at this time of renewed protests against police brutalities across the globe. Altogether, although I myself grew up viewing “Malaika” as a lullaby that was performed in Swahili lessons, Makeba’s renditions are, in fact, political expressions of longing across geographies, and protests against exiles and expulsions.