By Patrick Phosa
The Star Tonight, 5 January 1999
Having fabled artist Miriam Makeba as a grandmother may be a sure stepping stone towards a successful career in music. And being born of musically inclined parents - Bongi Makeba and Nelson Lee - may too be a passport to greener pastures.
But Zenzi Lee has not waited for musical manna to fall from heaven into her lap, expecting to clinch a recording deal at the flick of a finger merely for being Mama Afrika's granddaughter.
Zenzi acknowledged that she had to put her nose to the grindstone to get to where she is today.
The magic and charisma of Mama Afrika has probably rubbed off on her, but she does not bask in the glory of her legendary grandmother. And, like many artists, she had to undertake a great odyssey in the quest for a recording contract. She was shunted from pillar to post on a wild goose chase until she finally clinched a recording deal with Polygram.
This deal culminated in the recent release of her fabulous, long-overdue debut single State of Attraction.
Not only was it difficult to get a deal, Zenzi said, but having to hand-pick one single from her music vault which boasts more than 60 songs crafted over many years was an even more daunting task. "Music has been my life. I was born into music. My mother was a vocalist, songwriter and pianist while my dad was a beautiful vocalist. Of course, my granny is still one of the greatest singers in the world," she said.
Zenzi has imbibed music from a hotchpotch of wells which includes European, South African and West African, Asian and also Caribbean. She still has to cope with the complexity of double cultural belonging: African through her late mother, her childhood and her initial attachments in life; American through her father, her passport, language and lifestyle.
She was born in Manhattan, New York, and spent her early years there in the Bronx, in Guinea, West Africa, and in Morocco, North Africa, where her grandmother and mother were in exile.
Together with her mother and grandmother, she trotted around the globe well before she entered her teens. At age eight, Zenzi was featured in a televised concert in Holland. In the same year, she got a role in Moroccan-born director Ben Barka's Amok, an award-winning anti-apartheid film shot in Morocco and Guinea. When she was 13, she was featured in a televised concert in Spain.
After graduating in Manhattan in 1994, Zenzi left New York to join Makeba and legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela for the Tour of Hope. She rendered backing vocals and had the golden opportunity of strutting her stuff as a solo vocalist singing an a capella number.
Her trademark song became Mama, a traditional Jewish song originally entitled Yiddishe Mamma, which she always dedicates to her late mother and to all mothers.
I first heard Zenzi's angelic voice singing Mama at Orlando Stadium during the Music Heroes Concert, which featured artists such as Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa. It was a moving and scintillating song; her mellifluous voice soared high, bringing about sheer ecstasy and engulfing the revellers.
More recently Zenzi was a supporting act for Boyz II Men on their South African tour.
All her varied experiences have exposed Zenzi to a wide range of music genres which defies pigeonholing her.
"The music I'm doing is a summary of the diverse range of music I've been exposed to since I was a young child. I've taken the good from each experience and blended them to come up with my own unique sound. "I look at life in a strange way," she enthused. "It's like a book and every country I lived in is a chapter. As a child I had no control over that part of my life."
Then she wistfully added: "When I listen to West African music I feel nostalgic. I've an emotional attachment to Guinea. That was my granny's base after leaving the US. And that's where my mum is buried too."
Zenzi showers her brother Nelson with accolades for being the mastermind behind her music career. Nelson is an accomplished pianist and among other songs is credited with penning Mystery Girl for Nina Simone and Welela for Miriam Makeba.
Zenzi is currently putting the finishing touches to her forthcoming album Day Nights, which indicates "where I am presently, musically speaking". The album features a duet with Makeba on the Congolese traditional song Milele, which her grandmother taught her when she was a child.