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Paul Simon’s Graceland Turns 30: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

on August 23, 2016, 1:00pm

The Humthe hum is a sound that can only be heard at a certain frequency. It’s another name for “music of the spheres,” which is the confluence of various elements moving at once. In that spirit, this monthly column seeks to expand awareness of “world music,” which is something locals can hear perfectly, but others may not have the ability to hear for what it is.

Like a set of lungs, the folding bellows of an accordion expand and contract, pushing out vibrant life from between its pleated cardboard and cloth layers. Two sets of mechanical keys surround the bellows, one majestic, piano-like, the other mystifying in its spare utilitarian look. The accordion is an evocative instrument, as much visually as aurally. Its tones emulate breath, in a way, controlled by a pulse-like push and pull. There’s potential for grand drama as well, the physical aggression or fragility of the player so intricately tied to the sound produced.

The accordion can magically transport the listener to completely different realms, which may be why variations on the instrument are used in folk traditions from Bosnia to Colombia, in classical music, in jazz. And while the instrument is perhaps best known today for being associated with parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, it has a rich history of being used for heartbreaking beauty.

The accordion made its way through Africa, from Dagomba styles in Gabon to high life in Ghana, the Mende tribe in Sierra Leone to the OK Jazz of Zaire. But the accordion music that stood out to Paul Simon, the music that changed the course of “world music” forever and made a major impact on an entire country — heck, the entire world — was that of South Africa. Some trace the accordion’s use in South Africa to Soweto street bands in Johannesburg, though it must too have some roots in the Boeremusiek of Afrikaners. The descendants of largely Dutch settlers have long since adapted the traditions of their history to their new environments (dating back as far as 1652, when Jan Van Riebeeck and his men settled in what would become Cape Town).

In 1984, a year before I was born in Cape Town, Simon first heard a tape called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Vol. II., a collection of music that took on the classical instrument and fused it with hypnotic African grooves to form a uniquely South African-inspired sound. One of the more popular styles of this music is called mbaqanga or township jive, a style that features buoyant bass and propulsive percussion, oh, and that living, breathing accordion. The Boyoyo Boys were one of the most prominent acts featured on Jive Hits, a popular mbaqanga band that Simon felt energized by after a flagging solo album, Hearts and Bones, released a year earlier.

In fact, Simon would grow so enamored by the music that he would travel to South Africa in order to meet, play with, and learn from some of the musicians in the scene. Those sessions would wind up becoming the iconic Graceland, a record that would sell 16 million copies in its first year alone. He was putting the Western World’s spotlight on deserving, talented African musicians, inspired by their being and culture.

There was only one problem: Many people, in South Africa and around the world, felt it was a disgrace. An exploitation of a country suffering under the brutal Apartheid regime. And while the argument rages to this day … they were all right.

Graceland romanticized South African culture at a time when many outside the country were (rightfully) condemning it. They only knew Apartheid, the racial segregation and oppressive treatment of black people, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, the disenfranchisement, violence, protesting. In his love of the Gumboots accordion, his trip to Johannesburg studios and creation of families of musicians, Simon lived within and exposed a culture of beautiful expression, a dream paradise that existed outside of or beyond the severe social and political problems.

Within South Africa, the culture was being actively torn apart by the dominant National Party. The pieces of the country that could produce such a beautiful tapestry together were being torn from each other. In addition to all of the injustice, musically, black artists weren’t allowed to play on the streets, weren’t allowed to play with white artists, were seeing their means of expression suppressed. For this reason, the Anti-Apartheid Movement called for a cultural boycott of South Africa, strongly demanding that artists not visit, work in, or support South Africa in its crumbling, brutal state. Simon broke that boycott after he was invited to join black musicians in the studio, and boy did he take that opportunity.

That decision will be questioned forever. As a South African, I’ve questioned it myself, largely at the intersection of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. He clearly respected artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela, the beautiful late Miriam Makeba, and Ray Phiri, paying them triple-scale what American studio musicians would be paid, growing to find them like a family — and they reciprocated that love. “Paul Simon is my brother,” says Joseph Shabakala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the compelling Under African Skies, a documentary of the 25th anniversary of the record. “I never saw him as a color.” Simon had a clear connection to their music, immersing himself in the flutter of the accordion, the deep resonance of the bass, the shiver of the percussion. But even still, there could be a negative punch in the gut when a famous artist from a first world country swoops in and casts a spotlight on working with artists in an embattled, impoverished, subjugated community. At a certain point, the magnanimity and best intentions of artistry might not be enough; by shining a spotlight, Simon himself benefited the most. It raises a difficult question: Can an artist ever connect exclusively with the art of a less privileged culture, or does the very nature of the difference in privilege and politics define the interaction in some way?

There’s no denying that Simon and Graceland did a lot of good for the musicians involved, for the South African music community, and even for exposure of the country’s troubled reality. It’s ironic that such a universally pleasing, moving record could be so controversial, upheld as both a humanitarian gem and a questionable move. But in reality, it is and has always been both of those things.

Nothing epitomizes that duality as succinctly as the core of Under African Skies — the Joe Berlinger-directed documentary celebrating Graceland’s 25th anniversary — which is the conversation between Simon and Dali Tambo, the founder of the Artists Against Apartheid movement and son of former ANC Party President Oliver Tambo. “I wasn’t expecting to connect with the guy [Tambo],” says Joe Berlinger, the documentary’s director, when I speak with him over the phone about the record’s 30th anniversary. “He felt very open-minded about everything. I was expecting a tense interview, but he was lovely.”

That duality is quite telling; both Tambo and Simon put across their points in the documentary logically and intelligently; the two agree that there was never any ill will (“I have respected you all my life. I know you had no mal-intent,” Tambo says to Simon), and yet they still remain as far apart in their estimation of the situation as they were in the first place — as far apart on the couch they shared as possible. Simon is convinced that his involvement with the artists despite the Boycott was pure, that musicians shouldn’t have to kowtow to politics, that having been invited to the country by black musicians he respected and supported, he was giving back. Tambo believes that the boycott needed to be upheld by everyone as a unit in order to make true change, perhaps even that this privileged white American musician was disregarding the reality of the situation. “We were fighting for our land and identity,” Tambo says in a key moment. “We had a job to do, and Paul Simon coming in was a threat and an issue.”

The distance between the two was not lost on Berlinger when organizing their conversation. “I wanted the film to definitely have both sides aired,” he says. “But I was taking a huge creative risk and personal risk by bringing those two together to see what would happen.” However, that conflict, that divergence is both the history and the reason for continued analysis of the record. “The whole reason I wanted to do the film and include the political part is that I felt that it was an inherent part of the story,” Berlinger adds. The record, though, isn’t entirely or even primarily political. It has moments that touch on international struggles, but Apartheid isn’t its main concern. Yet politics and art have always been strange but inevitable bedfellows. As transcendent as any piece of art may be, the political reality of the piece’s surroundings will always be attached to it like an Acme weight, keeping the ground in sight whether you believe there’s a ground or not.

To that end, Simon had the opportunity to talk about Apartheid explicitly, using the South African traditions like a rhythmic vessel to make it more palatable and universal. But there’s something telling that he took recordings of the musicians in Johannesburg and returned back to New York with them before finishing the project. It might be unfair to expect a grand statement on South African politics from Simon — half the appeal of Graceland is that it denies the darkness to a degree, that it shrugs off the pain and reaches for the heavens. These people were making the most uplifting music in the face of the most harsh realities. Rather than shine a light on the prevalent darkness, Simon illuminated the best parts of South Africa. Much like his decision to enter the country in the first place, this choice will be questioned throughout time, but it’s a question that the artist himself answered for himself the second he stepped into the country.

We all know how I feel about the hogwash term “world music,” an archaic, lazy, and brutal way of clumping the music of the world into one fat, buttery pile of foreign and unusual sounds. But when you peek 30 years into the past, the term didn’t always carry that negative connotation; in fact, at the time of Graceland, it was seen as rather world-shifting, able to boost musicians that once lived in the shadows into the spotlight. “Graceland really ushered in a whole new era of world music,” Berlinger says. And it’s true: By infusing African music into his internationally renowned folk and pop, Simon helped the artists involved build to an explosion of cross-cultural musical attention and collaboration. Masses around the world were embracing the kind of music that largely only South Africans had given a moment to previously.

After the record’s release, Simon came under a great deal of fire for his decision to not follow the boycott. The artist, in turn, became defensive, doing everything he could to insist and demonstrate the support and care he had for the South African musicians, without backing down to the protesters picketing his concerts or calling in bomb threats. “As I got to know Paul and we started talking about the film, I felt like he had this wound that just needed to be healed,” Berlinger says. “My reason for wanting to bring the two of them [Simon and Tambo] together was that I felt there could be some closure achieved. I thought it would give an opportunity for both sides, for Dali and for Paul, to at least have a face-to-face and explain each other’s point of view … and I think it worked.”

Others, meanwhile, embraced the beauty of the record on its own or celebrated the spotlight being shined on deserving South African artists. In fact, there was even a contention that saw the record as an example of the ways in which the cultural boycott may have been further cutting off the people most in need. “To me the cultural boycott meant, ‘Don’t go to white South Africa as a musician and perform for white segregated audiences. Don’t support the Apartheid government by performing for a white segregated audience,’ Berlinger says. “That I understand. But to tell Paul Simon not to perform with black South Africans? The Apartheid system was about dehumanizing people, making them less than human, and the process of taking black South African music and exporting that culture around the world humanizes them again. The best way to fight a dehumanizing system is to humanize the victims.” There’s a truth to this, a real beauty to the friendship that the exiled Masekela and Simon share in the documentary, to the sounds of accordion fusing with Simon’s voice on “The Boy in the Bubble”.

Stunned by South African music, Simon swooped into the country on the back of sheer divine inspiration. That said, no regular Joe Schmo from New York City would have been allowed similar access. Propelled by his celebrity, whether aware of his magic carpet or not, Simon was allowed in, and even as the scales tipped, he was tormented for that reason.

We expect our artists to dive into danger and make a change! Hold the microphone up and shout out loud the world’s sorrows! But Simon approached South Africa like a child smacking a first toy drum before knowing exactly how to play. And Berlinger understands the push-and-pull of Simon’s celebrity. “A much lesser person could have slipped into the country and met a group of black musicians and recorded some songs, so I don’t think Paul Simon being Paul Simon allowed that opportunity to happen. But I do think Paul Simon being Paul Simon and the immense talent that he has and the desire to create…” Berlinger begins, lauding the record’s magnetic skill. “He’d be the first person to tell you, he wasn’t politically motivated when he first went to South Africa. He was just attracted to the sound, and the desire to make music brought him there. His eyes opened when he was in the country, and his awareness grew.”

This distinction is important, perhaps more so to Simon’s legacy and the lives of his collaborators than the record itself. Simon toured with South African musicians, something that not even a local had done. He brought their profound voices to the world, taking them out to far-flung countries and giving them the space to share their reality. Ladysmith Black Mambazo appeared with him on Saturday Night Live when they were completely unknown to much of America. While Simon started out seeking “the ecstasy of Africa,” parading as a celebrity seemingly unaffected by the political reality of the boycott, he left bound by and entangled in a brutal reality he never foresaw, tied inextricably to musicians who lived to tell the tale of Apartheid.

Though he might never have intended to, Simon carved a bridge between two cultures that don’t speak the same musical languages, yet are capable of speaking surprisingly similar political languages. Music never entirely exists outside of political realities, but luckily politics doesn’t exist in a world outside the influence of music either. Making Graceland was never as simple as Simon’s supposed pure artistic connection, nor was it as exclusively troublesome as others made it out to be. Though the decisions involved in producing the album are still worth analyzing, Graceland cross-pollinated beautiful music and artistic progression over troubled, choppy waters. Most importantly, the connection ceased to belong just to Simon — it became the world’s, linking together the oppressed, the politicians, the critics, the activists, and listeners. Music offers that powerful uniting force, particularly in times of struggle, giving the opportunity for each and every person who listens to build their own bridge rather than watch as the undercurrents of political and social upheaval wash life away.