Early recordings get a facelift

Mama Africa had a successful and prolific career throughout her 76 years and Gallo Records has chosen to go right back to her musical roots for some great deluxe reissues.

The three compilations in question trace Miriam Makeba’s rise to fame in the mid-to late-Fifties as a vocalist with the Manhattan Brothers and as the bandleader of the Skylarks.

The man behind these great new compilations is Gallo archivist Rob Allingham, who has spent many painstaking hours coordinating the remastering of old classics and compiling detailed liner notes for the albums. The results are three fantastic compilations that shine a new light on Makeba’s early work.

The vocal groups of the time drew their influence more from American popular music than from any traditional styles. But the Manhattan Brothers fused the sounds of American bands such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots with ragtime, jive, swing, doo-wop and African choral and Zulu harmonies. The Skylarks took their influence from New Orleans’s Boswell sisters or the Andrews Sisters, but unlike local vocal groups like the Quad Sisters they too fused distinctly African vocal harmonies into the sound.

The Manhattan Brothers were around since the Forties and had a reputation for having the finest backing musicians and female vocalists. Makeba was invited to join them at the age of 21 as a replacement for Emily Kwenane and she remained a member for most of the Fifties. The Very Best of the Manhattan Brothers (Gallo) features 20 songs from the band’s recordings and of those four feature Makeba’s great voice. The first, Tula Ndivile, is a great little blues number, while Baby Ntshoare is reminiscent of Twenties and Thirties jazz from New Orleans. But it is quite clear that the four Manhattan Brothers were equally vocally blessed and this album is a real treat.

While Makeba was still a member of the Manhattan Brothers she was approached in 1956 by Gallo talent scout Sam Alcock to form an all-female vocal group. Alcock wanted to compete with Troubadour, which had signed the Quad Sisters, and asked Makeba to form the Skylarks, whose early recordings were released under the name the Sunbeams, but Alcock soon changed it. The Skylarks were hugely popular and in a mere three years they recorded more than 100 songs.

Obviously Makeba was a well-known singer, but when the band was formed she was still in the shadow of Dolly Rathebe and Dorothy Masuka. By 1958 the Skylarks were South Africa’s most popular vocal group and Makeba was the darling of the music scene. All too soon she was spreading her wings, heading overseas and eventually into exile.

This two-CD series contains some of her early musical footprints, great songs such as the gospel hits Make Us One, Live Humble and Do unto Others, as well as Makeba and Spokes’s Patha Patha, which features the pennywhistle legend Spokes Mashiyane. Other highlights include the huge hits Miriam’s Goodbye to Africa, Hush and Remember Sophiatown. Fans of ragtime and Thirties and Forties gospel and jazz vocal groups take note, The Very Best of Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks: 1956 to 1959 (Gallo), is a priceless collection. — Lloyd Gedye

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