SONG: The Click Song (Qongqothwane)
ARTIST: Miriam Makeba
Listen to it here:
This song is called Qongqothwane, and is a traditional song of the Xhosa people of South Africa. Traditionally, it’s sung at weddings to bring good fortune to the couple. The Xhosa title literally translates to “knock-knock beetle” which is a popular name for a bunch of species of beetles that make a distinctive knocking sound by tapping their abdomens on the ground. These beetles are believed to bring good luck and rain.
Though this is a traditional song, it is now known worldwide thanks to the artist we are listening to today, Miriam Makeba. She recorded several different iterations of the song throughout her long career and sometimes titled it by its traditional Xhosa name, and sometimes called it The Click Song.
Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg to Swazi and Xhosa parents. She was known as Mama Africa and had a long and well-documented career as a singer, songwriter, actress, and civil rights activist.
Makeba’s father died when she was young and she had to grow up quickly. She got a job and had a brief and allegedly abusive marriage at the age of 17. Her talent as a singer was noticed when she was in her early 20s and she began singing professionally in several different groups singing a mixture of jazz, traditional African melodies, and Western popular music.
Makeba’s big break came when she had a brief role in the 1959 anti-apartheid film, Come Back, Africa, which brought her international attention. She had performances in Venice, London, and New York City, and led to her meeting the American singer Harry Belafonte, who became a mentor and a friend. In 1960 she moved to New York City and recorded her first solo album. That year, her mother passed away and the South African Government refused to let her back in the country for the funeral.
Makeba’s career flourished in the US and she released several albums and songs, the most popular being Pata Pata (which I hope is on this list somewhere….oh the memories). She and Belafonte received a Grammy for their 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. During the 60s and 70s she also testified against the South African government at the United Nations, and married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther Party. This lost her support from white Americans and eventually, her visa was revoked. She had to relocate to Guinea and continued to perform throughout Africa.
As a result of this, she began to write and perform music that was more explicitly critical of apartheid, and continued recording and performing. Makeba died of a heart attack in 2008.
- Makeba was one of the first African musicians to receive worldwide recognition. Upon her death, Nelson Mandela said that “her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”
I’ve been a big fan of Miriam Makeba for a long time. Our mom liked her because she often sang with Harry Belafonte, and mine and Holly’s first real exposure to her was when we attended Camp Narnia (YES it’s a real thing and YES it was exactly what it sounds like, including Live Action Role Play) where they played her song Pata Pata ad nauseum. I rediscovered her in my late teens when I developed my unhealthy and ongoing obsession with Paul Simon – Makeba was Paul’s first choice to sing with him on his song Under African Skies from the greatest album of all time Graceland, but the record execs said Makeba sounded ‘too African’ so they had Linda Ronstadt sing instead (but Makeba did sing the part, with Xhosa ad libs for Paul’s live Graceland concert in Zimbabwe). ANYWAY, the Click Song. The first thing I noticed was actually how good the quality of the recording sounds compared to a lot of the stuff we’ve been listening to. It’s clear and well balanced with Makeba in front, as she should be and everyone else nicely peppered through. I like how the song starts with kind of a fade in, starting with Miriam, then back up singers and guitar. The back up singers are super strong and I love that it sounds like it’s just a bunch of bass baritones, it gives the song a lot of depth. I also really like the loud percussive claps. Of COURSE her voice is great, pretty and strong and I love the growls in there too. I also love the song that (despite Cher’s best efforts, ugh) the song can’t really be gentrified by white people (nor should it be) because of the clicks. I love that Miriam showed us some of her culture and did it unapologetically. She is missed.
How to review Miriam Makeba? Long long before I knew who she was, I’d heard her voice hundreds of times, and it’s hard to think of it from a distance. But, I think I’m pretty safe in saying that her voice is beautiful. It’s warm, deep, flexible, and so expressive. I love that Makeba is not afraid to talk to her audience about the songs she is singing, even on a record, and I love how impressive without being a novelty the clicking is on this song. The melody is simple enough, but with lots of flourishes and surprises. Makeba growls from time to time with a shocking depth, and I like the stomps or dry clacks or whatever happens near the end – it’s almost a nod to the clicking in Makeba’s voice. I really like how this song starts with just Makeba, and then instruments are added one at a time. The song, its structure, and its chords are fairly simple, with the melody being almost forgettable but somehow it’s still enticing. I like the backup singers, and the overall balance of this recording. It seems effortless for Makeba’s voice to float over the amount of activity going on in the background. This song is historically vital, and anything that helps to popularize Miriam Makeba is a win to me! This is not my favourite Miriam Makeba song ever, but it’s still a very pleasing listening experience.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Ok, Miriam Makeba is one of a kind. But here’s Trevor Noah explaining the three types of clicks in the Xhosa language:
I’m very sorry to do this to you all, but here’s Cher – she eliminates the clicks, the soul, and the tuning from this song:
Listen with us!
Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
Link to the Best of the Best 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: