Hearing Whoopi Goldberg call the late Miriam Makeba “a great chick, an awesome broad” will go down as one of my favourite moments from the Ubuntu series that wrapped up Carnegie Hall last night with a tribute to the iconic South African singer. Goldberg, who starred in the anti-apartheid movie Sarafina alongside Makeba, relayed, in an intro to last night’s show, how “every one and their mother” walked around New York trying to learn how to do the click from The Click Song when the hit came out in the ’60s.
Goldberg credits Makeba for opening her eyes to South Africa, and Africa as a whole, calling her a remarkable woman. In that same vein, Angelique Kidjo who led the evening’s performances is a powerhouse too. A true voice for the continent in so many ways. “I’m glad you came,” she said to the audience. “Thanks for not thinking I’d bring Ebola to Carnegie Hall.”
Between Kidjo and her guests, who included back up singers who worked with Makeba, Faith Kekana, Stella Khumalo and Zamo Mbutho, as well as British soul singer Laura Mvula, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Vusi Mahlasela, aka The Voice, Makeba’s songs were performed in the halls of Carnegie Hall, the 120-year-old venue that has played host to everyone from Billie Holliday to the Beatles.
There have been so many stand-out moments during the past few weeks that the Ubuntu series, dedicated to celebrating 20 years of democracy in South Africa, has been running. Last night only added to that. Hearing Koenig, the lead singer from one of my favourite indie pop rock bands and a friends of Kidjo’s, sing the lullaby Laku Tshone ‘llanga and add his voice to a Pata Pata chorus was definitely a favourite moment. Vampire Weekend have an African rhythm to their sound that shows how the continent’s cultural impact can be felt across the seas.
Witnessing the might of Kidjo’s voice as it quivers and soars during the Tanzanian love song Malaika, another song Makeba made famous, was another favourite moment, even as it brought tears to my eyes. Laura Mvula, a young singer emboldened by Makeba’s spirit as a woman who stood strong and sang proud, performing her song Father, Father yet another. Kidjo and Mahlasela’s voices harmonizing on Vukani, a track Makeba sang with her former husband Hugh Masekala, another. And then, seeing Desmond Tutu dance along to the song Kidjo performed with Alicia Keys at the Mandela Day concert at Radio City Music Hall in 1990 (my first trip to New York) topped it all off. Keys, pregnant with her second child, was in the audience too, in her trademark hat and head-scarf, but didn’t join Kidjo on stage for Africa.
At the end of it all, the audience high on the goodness of life, Kidjo reminded us that the example of Makeba and other artists from South Africa showed when they sang their struggle songs and spoke out against apartheid that, “as long as we have music, we will be able to burn the evil out of our lives.”
Ngiyabonga, New York City.