Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lorraine Klaasen & Malika Zarra Salute Makeba at the Apollo

Text and photos by Banning Eyre 

This past weekend two African jazz singers--one from Morocco and one from South Africa--performed a unique tribute to Miriam Makeba at the Apollo Music Cafe, a sweet new venue at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem.   Malika Zarra opened with a spare trio consisting of only cajon percussion a saz and Zarra herself.  Zarra's roots are with the Berber (Amazight) people of Morocco--often called the original North Africans.  But she became a jazz singer in Paris, and brought her career to New York City a few years ago.  Zarra usually fronts a larger band, as on her new CD Berber Taxi.  But it was a treat to experience her in this stripped-down format.  We heard some of the rough edges of her smoothly nuanced voice as she delved into North African vocal sounds, including some growling and grunting offsetting her clear mellifluous melodies, some of which she appeared to be able to harmonize using an effects pedal.  The instrumentalists supported her splendidly, Jean-Christophe Maillard on saz occasionally throwing in angular jazzy riffs, or a bass line to accent his instrument's subtle chime, and the Moroccan percussionist Brahim Fribgane kept things sharp and grooving throughout. 

Lorraine Klaasen steps right out the pages of South African jazz history.  In many ways a spiritual and artistic heir to Makeba, it made sense for her to deliver a mostly-Makeba set that included "The Click Song," "Pata Pata," "Meadowlands" and more.  Klaasen has a powerful voice, and seemed completely comfortable with her backing quartet, which she unabashedly told the crowd had learned her songs just the day before.  They did beautifully, but this was Klaasens' show, and as moving as her evocations of Makeba's delivery and style were, her sassy stage banter was almost as good.  She coached the band, teased the audience, told humorous stories, and imparted fascinating insights into Makeba's songs:  "Pata Pata?  Means 'touch touch' by the way.  Yeah!  You didn't know that?"   Klaasen let us know she had had a lifelong dream of performing at the Apollo, and while this was not the big stage, it seemed quite enough to fulfill that dream for her.

No surprise, both singers did a take on Makeba's signature song (though not her composition) "Malaika."  Zarra's was boldly experimental, bringing in Berber chanting, dark North African harmonies, and a wholly original sensibility.  Klassen explained that the song was about lobola, the very high price of an African Bride "In this country you just take them.  At least give me something.  A cow!"  Then she proceeded to belt it out of the park.  I recently blogged that artists should be careful covering this song, given what a find job Angelique Kidjo has done with it, but both these covers stood the test and did Makeba proud.  The show ended with tremendous good feeling, with Zarra and other singers in the crowd joining Klaasen for her boisterous finale.

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