How Graceland helped guide me to a lifelong love for global music
Paul Simon, who turns 80 today, was my gateway to a lifelong love for African music when he released Graceland 35 years ago on August 25, 1986, just days before I started 7th grade.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Though the likes of Talking Heads and Led Zeppelin contained elements of African music in their sounds, Paul Simon immersed us in the rhythms and melodies from deep within Soweto, the township inside of Johannesburg where crippled under the fist of the pro-white regime. In fact, Simon risked his own reputation by defying the stigma of traveling to South Africa in the thick of Apartheid to record music for the album. The decision drew an uproar amongst such activist acts as Billy Bragg, Jerry Dammers of The Specials and Paul Weller among others, accusing Simon of breaking the global cultural boycott imposed on South Africa at the time.
“When he goes to South Africa, Paul Simon bows to apartheid,” former UN ambassador to Ghana James Victor Ghebo told David Fricke in the July 2, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone. “He lives in designated hotels for whites. He spends money the way whites have made it possible to spend money there. The money he spends goes to look after white society, not to the townships.”
Nonetheless, like the hard-headed Queens dude he is, Simon stuck to his guns and trusted his heart in his choice in making a statement by eschewing the criticisms of his peers in order to work with the actual musicians being marginalized in country and in real time. Among the names include guitarist Ray Phiri, the magnificent bassist Bakithi Kumalo, whose fluid, fretless playing is key to the sound of Graceland, and–perhaps most famously–the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Youssou N’Dour, who could also be heard on 1986’s other smash pop album So by Peter Gabriel, plays percussion alongside LBM on Graceland’s greatest track, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.”
VIDEO: Paul Simon featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo “Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes”
“I still think it’s the most form of politics, more powerful than saying it right on the money, in which case you’re usually preaching to the converted,” Simon told Fricke in that July 2nd issue. “People get attracted to the music, and once they hear what’s going on within it, they say, ‘What? They’re doing that to these people?'”
Despite being endorsed by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee for its support of black South African musicians, the ANC nonetheless voted to ban Simon from the country, and he was also added to the United Nations blacklist (he was removed in January 1987). Yet Graceland was championed by such renowned South African artists as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, both of whom toured with Simon in the 80s.
For some, Graceland is still seen as this gross exercise in American pop colonialism. But take into consideration how instrumental Graceland has been in expanding the listenership of African music all over the world. And not just the sounds emerging from the Soweto outside Johannesburg, but music from other African countries as well. Personally speaking, being a Graceland fan led me to the works of Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Orchestra Baobab, Ali Farka Toure, Dollar Brand, Johnny Clegg & Savuka and so much more.
It’s also been cool to see modern acts like Vampire Weekend and Burna Boy utilize elements of Graceland to craft their own 21st century variations of its aesthetic into their own individualistic methods of creation.
Simon would go onto make a similar sojourn into Brazilian music for Graceland’s follow-up The Rhythm of the Saints, which found him working in collaboration with such names as singer Milton Nascimento and percussion legend Naná Vasconcelos alongside an ad-hoc supergroup comprised of veteran players from both Graceland and Simon’s 70s albums. According to the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot at the time, Saints was “even more exotic than its predecessor.”
As he hits his 80th year on Earth, I felt it was important to express just how much Paul Simon has been instrumental in bringing his singularly New York songwriting style to the global village. And how much he brought the rhythms of the world outside to American kids like me.
Especially those sounds under African skies.
VIDEO: Paul Simon The African Concert (1987)