Do you remember which Makeba songs you listened to growing up in Benin? Well, the one I really remember is The Retreat Song. My mother taught me that. The Retreat Song became a protest song in Benin when local women began standing up for themselves and demanding essential rights such as the right to vote and the right to have an abortion. My mother and her friends took Makeba's original melody and wrote their own lyrics in Fon, basically saying that women should not be considered as objects but as the future of the human race. When I was sixteen I recorded my own adaptation of the 3 Zs, a song Makeba wrote when she was in Zaire… I recorded my own version called the 3 Bs for Benin. That was the very first recording I made on national radio in 1976.
Makeba seems to have shone as a sort of guiding light throughout your career…
Yes, exactly! I never thought of Makeba as just a singer, she represented so many things for me. Essentially, I looked up to her because she was a strong woman who wasn't afraid to speak out and say what she thought in a man's world. The fact of covering her songs made me want to get as close as possible to her. I put in a lot of work and I picked things up pretty quickly working phonetically. It's thanks to South African music that I came to integrate harmonies in my work. In southern Benin, where I come from, music is extremely linear. But thanks to Miriam Makeba I broadened my horizons and when I write my songs today I treat the backing vocals as an instrumental part, building them up like South African choirs.
In 1989, just a few years after moving to Paris, you were invited to support Miriam Makeba at L'Olympia…
That was such an emotional moment for me! Nobody had warned me what a shock it would be meeting my idol face to face! Miriam was in the midst of a big tour and she was extremely tired but she was so sweet and kind and generous. It was the first time I'd seen her in concert in my life - and, imagine, I had to get up there on stage and open for her! I was so overwhelmed it made me feel physically sick. I was shaking and my temperature shot up to fever pitch. But I was so happy to be there… We met up again in Switzerland several years later and became quite close.
Why did you choose to make this tribute a collaborative effort with other female singers from Africa?
Because so many of us have been influenced by Makeba in one way or another. We owe her so much. She opened a breach for us and we have to prove that her sacrifice has not been in vain. Miriam Makeba was an incredible woman who touched everyone right across the generations. She travelled extensively in West Africa, performing in Dakar, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and Ivory Coast and she made such an impact wherever she went. I'm going to be joined on stage by Sayon Bamba Camara, a singer from Guinea, because Guinea was very important to Makeba. She spent fourteen years of her life there. And Rokia Traoré, Asa, Ayo, and Dobet Gnahoré will also be at the Cirque d'Hiver with me together with a South African choir - and Vusi Mahlasela, the only male artist in the line-up!
And what form will your tribute take?
We're going to try and tell the whole of Makeba's incredible story. And it's no mean feat! Her discography is enormous! We'll be performing covers of all the great Makeba classics, but there'll also be lesser-known songs that were essential in building her career. There'll be photos and film footage projected at the back of the stage while we sing…
Miriam Makeba wanted you to take up the torch and continue her legacy. Is that something you're ready to assume today?
No, absolutely not! That legacy's much too heavy for me! I already bear the weight of Africa on my shoulders and, anyway, I don't think one woman alone could ever take her place. That's why I invited all these other singers to join me. We're going to dig deep inside ourselves and find the strength to pay a collective homage to the great woman that she was.
Translation : Julie Street