All Music is Holy: Miriam Makeba, Empress of Songs, as Seen in the Malaika

John Otim

To get a feel of the world of the Empress of Songs, Nile Journal Editor John Otim spent the night immersed in the sounds of the goddess and came away with endless love





Whenever and wherever in the world Miriam Makeba took to the stage in performance of the one and only Malaika, the African love song, she first made famous and then help drive to the top of the charts, to become one of the most loved of all love songs, nothing so becomes this delicate and charming Empress of Songs.

In the well known song a young man, in love for the first time, laments the abduction of his young love. Malaika, Swahili for Angel and his name for her, has been stolen from him, by an older man who could afford the bride price demanded by the father who is backed by a backward tradition.

The quality of the Malaika as a love song springs from the fact that  the song reaches beyond the common place lamentation and sometimes weeping that abound in many love songs, to engage the emotion of solace.  Solace for the two young lovers in their loss. On account of the fact that because of the greed of her father, the girl is deprived the love of her life, and is condemned to a wretched marriage to a man she does not love. And the young man is condemned to a life without the companionship of the one he loves. Listen to the play of emotion in the voice of the young man in movement two of the song. The story and the circumstances are different but it is comparable to the play of emtions in the Beatles' Don't let me down.

Little bird, I think of you little bird
and what should I do
I would marry you, Angel
I am defeated by the bride price that I do not have
I would marry you Angel

I am defeated by the bride price that I don't have
I would marry you Angel
The money that I do not have depresses my soul
The money that I do not have depresses my soul

On stage in performance, the beautiful and the truly seductive Miriam Makeba becomes the Malaika, and the Malaika of the song in turn becomes Miriam Makeba. The audience and the viewers live and feel the pains she feels. They live and feel the void created by the absence of the bliss she and her man, would have enjoyed together had they not been denied. As you watch the drama and the deft movements of the singer on stage, you can hear the Beatles sing. Something in the way she moves.

We talk of course of the young Makeba, who brings to the performance such intensity and such devotion that with her, the song becomes a form of worship, giving credit to the old proposition that all music is holy. At Nile Journal we are sadden we cannot lay hands on our favorite version of Malaika sung by the young Miriam Makeba in a solo. But here is the Empress of Songs in the same song in a duet with Harry Belafonte, that other great of the Music Hall of Fame.