Paul Simon’s Graceland Reconsidered

There is also a claim that "Graceland," both the album and subsequent tour, impacted late 1980s South African music and politics for the better.

The cover of "Graceland," first released in 1986.

Last year, 2011, was the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s record, “Graceland.” I don’t have to remind you of the album’s significance. It is hard to imagine now the impact of that album, but it did a lot of things: it resurrected Simon’s stalled career, was the first “World Music” album to be a crossover hit, won Simon a Grammy and sold millions of albums. The usual celebratory articles appeared in late August (which is when the album was released in 1985). I was even interviewed for one of these commemorative articles by the news agency, AFP: Anyway, I think the album deserves a proper retrospective, not least because it was birthed in controversial circumstances (he defied the cultural boycott and sanctions; that Linda Ronstadt who defied the Sun City boycott against traveling to and performing in South Africa, appeared on the album; claims that Simon appropriated local styles without credit; and that Simon claims Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones help set up the trip). But there is also a claim that “Graceland,” both the album and subsequent tour, impacted late 1980s South African music and politics for the better.

The subsequent tour resurrected the career of Masekela and Makeba (whose career had suffered because of her marriage to Kwame Toure); made superstars out of Ladysmith Black Mambazo; and launched the careers of a number of other musicians (like Tony Cedras, Morris Goldberg and Bakiti Khumalo). The album is also interesting for how it mixes South African with other continental (Youssou N’Dour played percussion on the album for example; so did Demola Adepoju, etcetera) and American sounds. At the heart of debates about Graceland is the morally questionable circumstances that ultimately birthed quite an amazing transnational artistic collaboration. So we’re excited to hear about the new film “Under African Skies” by American director Joe Berlinger, which has its first ever public screening at Sundance later tonight. Berlinger has told a journalist the film is not hagiography: “I’m not interested in making a Paul Simon puff piece … Paul was a great collaborator, but I made the film I wanted to make. … They knew who they were hiring.” None of us made it to Sundance. We’ll ask people who did what they saw. Perhaps Tambay of Shadow and Act will blog about its screening. Or we’ll wait till we get our hands on a screening copy or it gets to one of our cities where AIAC bloggers live.

Meanwhile, here is the trailer:

Further Reading

Our turn to eat

Reflections on Malawi’s recent election rerun, false starts and the hope that public representatives in Africa become accountable to their electorates’ aspirations.

The culture wars are a distraction

When our political parties only have recourse to the realm of identity and culture, it is a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy and programmatic content. It is cynically unpolitical, and it’s all bullshit.