25 years on, 'Graceland' reigns as world music pioneer

If every generation throws a hero up the pop charts, Paul Simon has been twice anointed, first as a 1960s folk-rock icon, then as world music emissary with "Graceland," the landmark album he released 25 years ago this month.

Stung by a second failed marriage and looking for a way to boost his flagging career, the singer-songwriter holed up at home on Long Island and was contemplating a new direction when a friend gave him a tape of South African "township jive".

A smitten Simon ventured to South Africa to catch up with the musicians, spending weeks recording with them as a global movement gelled against the racial segregation system known as apartheid.

Then in August, 1986 he stunned the world with what is universally considered his solo masterpiece: 11 eclectic tracks of autobiographical pop, soulful American R&B, Louisiana zydeco and Chicano rock layered with gorgeous African rhythms and harmonies that catapulted him back into the limelight.

It became the soundtrack to the lives of countless Americans and Europeans, selling 14 million copies, winning album of the year and song of the year Grammy Awards, turning acapella South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo into superstars and bringing African music in general to a wider world.

It pre-dated today's musical mash-ups, and with the album coming as it did at the dawn of compact discs, and on the cusp of the mobile phone and Internet revolutions, its opening track "The Boy in the Bubble" foretold the future with its hi-tech imagery.

"These are the days of lasers in the jungle," Simon sang.

In a way, "Graceland" was the first 21st Century album.

"It sounds like it could have been made yesterday," author Marc Eliot, whose biography of Simon came out last year, told AFP.

"If he had done nothing else but that album, he'd be in the pantheon of the greats."

Simon, who turns 70 in October, is among just a handful of artists to make hit records in seven decades, from the late 1950s with friend Art Garfunkel to this year's album "So Beautiful or So What."

In the 1970s, Simon produced soulful and sentimental rock and made forays into Latin beats and reggae.

But by the early 80s his new work was largely ignored. Slip-sliding into irrelevance, he took a chance few major artists would have, said Eliot, by seeking out rock's roots and traveling to Africa.

- Created the space for world music -

Simon didn't look nostalgically at the continent as a source of musical influence, however - he was embracing Africa's current of creativity, and in the process challenging a backward political system five years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

"For me, 'Graceland' still remains the greatest album ever produced by any outside composer representing South African music," said Sipho 'Hotstix' Mabuse, the South African musician who took Simon to Johannesburg's Soweto township in 1985 and suggested musicians the American could work with.

But it couldn't just be about the songs, lush as they were with Simon's effortless tenor intertwined with the rich, humid voices of Ladysmith singers on tracks such as "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes" and "Homeless."

Politics had its grip on all things cultural in South Africa, and Mabuse recalled the controversy over Simon's visit, saying "it profiled South Africa at the height of apartheid."

In the end, "they loved it," Eliot said of the reception South Africa gave the album.

But Simon was criticized as a white American parachuting in to exploit the talents of lesser-known musicians, and protesters inside and outside South Africa felt he was violating a UN cultural boycott on the country.

"People were divided," recalled South African-born Sean Jacobs, a professor at the New School in New York who also blogs about Africa.

"Some thought he would give legitimacy to a regime that was in really big trouble."

Instead, Jacobs said, what was put squarely in the spotlight was black Africa.

"He definitely created the space" for world music, said Jacobs. "He made it acceptable that you could sell records with sounds that were not well-known and predictable."

Simon returned to South Africa three weeks ago to perform with musicians who played on the album, in a show reportedly to be aired in a documentary.

"It felt like I was coming home," Simon said, according to Billboard magazine.

Among those joining him for the reunion was Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala, who at age 72 still sounds startled at his band's enduring appeal.

"We were not expecting to tour the world" with Simon, Shabalala told AFP, but there were "invitations from everywhere."

He said "Graceland" - named for the home of Elvis Presley, who embraced African-American music as a direct influence on rock & roll - opened the doors to an interracial conversation in South Africa that led to the crumbling of apartheid.

"That was the beginning," Shabalala said.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones