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.

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall