Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Miriam Makeba

  • Sangoma [Warner Bros., 1988] A-
  • Welela [Mercury, 1989] B+
  • Eyes on Tomorrow [Polydor, 1991] C

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Sangoma [Warner Bros., 1988]
It's disorienting at first to hear women singing what sounds like mbube, and though the weave would be richer (and more competitive) if most of them weren't this fifty-five-year-old matriarch, whose still-powerful voice has definitely thickened, the disorientation is salutary--South African pop is very male. Half the tunes are gorgeous and all of them are traditional, drawn from a cross-section of tribal cultures dominated by Makeba's clicking Xhosa. But they're not recreated, which usually means embalmed at best--they're interpreted for the studio, which permits Makeba her overdubs and enables Russ Titelman to lock in the spare accompaniment. There's even a synthesizer, and damned if I can tell exactly where. A-

Welela [Mercury, 1989]
Too bad for Americans that this smart singer-songwriter collection--the voice sure and soulful without bearing down on the dignity, every tune greeting you like an old friend as its arrangement kicks in--is mostly in Xhosa. Also too bad that the songs in English are nothing special--makes you wonder whether the rest are as smart as they sound. B+

Eyes on Tomorrow [Polydor, 1991]
It was made in Johannesburg, and that's a triumph. But unless you live there yourself, which means taking your uplift wherever you find it, save this genteel schlock for your Afrocentric grandma, who may not appreciate the gesture--she knows how much vague promises are worth. Even if you ignore the corny crossover lyrics, the all-purpose synthesizers, and the received licks from many lands, Dorothy Masuka is singing better, and without dated stabs at modernization. Dizzy Gillespie don't sound so hot either. C