COMING INTO HIS OWN: Zamo, above, who was backing singer to Miriam Makeba, above right, for 14 years, has released his debut album.
COMING INTO HIS OWN: Zamo, above, who was backing singer to Miriam Makeba, above right, for 14 years, has released his debut album.

Therese Owen

AT LAST – An Album of Classics Re-interpreted is a great debut from a singer who has an extensive CV.

Zamo has been a backing singer for people like Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu, Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Stimela and PJ Powers over the past three decades.

Then Zamo embarked on a 14-year journey as Miriam Makeba’s primary backing singer and was present when she died in Italy. Makeba obviously left a lasting impression on the vocalist and he says that his experience gained from her is invaluable.

Now, six years after her death, he has released his debut album which consists of a capella classics from the US and South Africa with an Isicathamiya slant.

The album has been released on the African Cream label which does very well with the tourist market in South Africa. The record company compiles themed world music from France to Brazil and repackages it to much success. The music is always of high quality and Zamo’s album is testament to that.

The opening track is the classic Fever which is at once sexy but also has that spiritual feel only Isicathamiya can bring to a song. He covers George and Ira Gershwin’s Summertime with aplomb as well as enduring hits like Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, Bill Withers’s Ain’t No Sunshine and Otis Redding’s Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.

He has not forgotten his roots and there is a magnificent rendition of Dorothy Masuka’s Nontsokolo as well as Weeping, which features Bright Blue’s Tom Fox, something that Zamo is proud of.

“We sent my vocals to his home in New Zealand,” says Zamo. “He loved them and agreed to sing on his own track. It’s a privilege.”

It takes a vocalist of extra-ordinary talent to record an album with a range of songs from John Lennon’s Imagine to The Soul Brothers’ Ngiyazenzela, but Zamo has successfully pulled it off. The album is meant for easy listening and a trip down memory lane with a unique take on every song.

When we discuss his career with Makeba over the years, he recalls the night that she died.

“It’s like she knew,” he says. “We were in Italy and playing in a square that was packed. People were leaning out of their windows in the buildings just to watch her. I went into her dressing room beforehand and she was just sitting there peacefully and smiled at me as usual before we went on stage.

“Normally our last song was Pata Pata and then we would all hold hands as a band with her and take a bow. This time, however, she blew kisses to the audience instead.”

According to Zamo she walked off stage and collapsed. Everyone went to her rescue and the audience sensed that something was wrong. A man then jumped onstage and claimed he was a doctor and told the stagehands who were trying to lift her up to leave her lying there until the ambulance came.

Meanwhile, the audience had realised that Makeba had collapsed and raised their lighters and lit cellphones in respect.

“I don’t think one person left the square,” says Zamo. “When the ambulance took her away the entire crowd started chanting: ‘Ma-ke-ba, Ma-ke-ba!’”

Makeba was accompanied to hospital by her management team and Zamo and the rest of her band returned dejectedly to the hotel.

Around midnight, the managers returned to the hotel and it was obvious that the news was very bad.

“I refused to believe it when I finally went to sleep. Then, when I woke up in the morning and switched on my television and saw the headline news, it was like I was hearing it for the first time.”

After having worked with greats like Makeba and others, it is no wonder that Zamo is able to perform the lead, both sides of the duet, supporting vocals, the choir and orchestral parts on all of his songs on the album.

Well worth the investment.