Pata Pata that translates as a light touch requires no introduction in South Africa.
South African’s have enjoyed Pata Pata since 1959 when Mariam Makeba and the girl group, The Skylarks first performed it.
But it wasn’t until the re-recording in 1967 that the song became a global hit.
The version we are all familiar with today was recorded by US and R&B producer Jerry Ragovoy.
It is more directly pop and features English lyrics:
“Pata Pata is the name of a Dance we do down Johannesburg way.”
“And everybody starts to move as soon as Pata Pata starts to play.”
The infectious nature of the song sends Mariam into high demand.
Makeba goes from being unknown in 1959 to popular in America and everywhere she travelled in South America in 1967.
She talks about how “in the disco’s they have invented a new dance called the Pata Pata. Couples dance apart, and then reach out and touch each other.”
Regardless, Makeba didn’t understand why the song was popular.
In her 1987 autobiography, she describes it as “one of my most insignificant songs”.
Songs like ‘Sophia is Gone’ and ‘Soweto Blues were more to her liking.
Makeba lived in Sophiatown in 1950.
It was a vibrant musical town where kwela music, marabi, African jazz and big band music became popular.
Significantly, it was also one of the few places where all races could mix at the time.
Her music was described as politically charged.
But Makeba maintained that it was not.
“I’m not a political singer. I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decide to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life.”
“…In South Africa we always sang about what was happening. Especially the things that hurt us.”
Regardless the significance of Pata Pata is best described in a 2000 interview.
Makeba said, “sometimes people are tired of thinking of difficult and unpleasant things.”
Makeba may have denied that her music shared any political influence, but she was a voice on an international stage.
She appeared in ‘Come Back, Africa’ an anti-apartheid film by Lionel Rogosin.
Her appearance in the film stripped her of her South African citizenship.
It also allowed her the freedom to voice what was happening through music.
“Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising,” says Makeba in her 1987 autobiography,
The flirtatious light touch of Pata Pata transcended borders and race and time.
In 2008 she performed Pata Pata one last time in Italy before succumbing to a heart attack shortly after.
Other versions of the song
More artists performed and reworked the song since 1959.
The most recent version was released in July of this year by Somi, a vocalist from Illinois.