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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices