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Review: Zenzi Makeba Lee and Afrika Mkhize join forces at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival

South African jazz dynasties come together for a night of sanguine rhythms and soulful melodies from around the world.

The shadow of a relative’s fame can loom so large that running as far away from it as possible often seems like the only way to gain emancipation. Natalie Cole, the daughter of the musical legend Nat King Cole, pursued a degree in psychology at the University of Massachusetts specifically to get away from the vortex of her father’s name, for instance. But, as frequently happens in these sorts of instances, she eventually embarked on her own musical career after his death in 1965. Even then, however, she resisted covering her father’s work. “I had to do my own songs in my own way,” she told Rolling Stone in 1977.

Zenzi Makeba Lee and Afrika Mkhize were born into two of the most extreme versions of this problem. Zenzi is the granddaughter of Miriam Makeba, who is affectionately known as Mama Africa, while Africa is the son of jazz virtuoso Themba Mkhize. But instead of fleeing, both have drawn strength and inspiration from their ancestors. Makeba Lee embraced music from a very early age – she was just eight years old when she made her first recorded stage appearance at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague. Similarly, Mkhize was christened into the biz by the age of six.

So it would not have been fair to say that the crowd assembled at Saints Bistro in Grahamstown’s High Street was simply there because the night’s stars belonged to musical aristocracies. Both artists have accumulated their own accolades that, aside from their genetic headstart, have been won on merit.

Zenzi Makeba Lee Photo: Tony L Andrews/This is Africa

Zenzi Makeba Lee is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where she majored in composition and vocals. In 2000 she was nominated for a SAMA (South African Music Award) in the category “Best Female Artist”. Her abilities in the field of composition were recognised in the form of a Grammy nomination for her contribution to the song “Homeland” on Miriam Makeba’s album with the same name. 

Read: Remembering Mama Africa Miriam Makeba

Afrika Mkhize, an attendee of the National School of the Arts, went on to study jazz and composition at Pretoria Technikon. He has produced award-winning albums for Tlali Makhene, Themba Mkhize, Sibongile Khumalo, Kabelo from TKZ and Nokukhanya Dlamini. He is also well known in more classical circles. In 2010 Mkhize arranged music for the Johannesburg Philharmonic Harmonic Orchestra and Mara Louw in a tribute to women in the arts at the State Theatre in Pretoria.

File picture. Afrika Mkhize. Photo: Afrika Mkhize/Facebook

Makeba Lee began the evening with a composition by her late great-grandmother (Miriam Makeba’s mother), who was a traditional healer, known locally as a sangoma. The song included percussive guttural sounds that set high expectations for a vibrant evening. The set-list then meandered around the world with songs from Tanzania, the US and France, all of which provided a pleasant vehicle for her syrupy voice.

Makeba Lee began the evening with a composition by her late great-grandmother (Miriam Makeba’s mother), who was a traditional healer.

Interspersed, of course, were several piano solos by Mkhize. They remained in the melodic orbits of the songs at hand, but often took daring excursions to the limits of their atmosphere.

Zenzi Makeba Lee at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival. Photo: Tony L Andrews/This is Africa

Read: Will the new Miriam Makeba please stand up

It must be said that though Makeba Lee’s own compositions got heads bobbing and eyelids closed in meditation, it was the covers of Mama Makeba’s hits, such as “Malaika”, that got everyone out of their seats. Immediately a jovial, almost victorious mood descended on the crowd – as if a sports team had just won a championship – as everyone spoke Africa’s lingua franca: dance.

The affection the audience showed for her grandmother’s work did not seem to bother Makeba Lee. She obviously has a very fond relationship with Mama Africa’s memory and music. Both artists have a confidence that can only come from the knowledge that they have nothing to prove.

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