Paul Simon’s Graceland was probably one of the most definitive albums to have shaped my life. Produced during the last days of South Africa’s apartheid, it consisted of Simon, formerly of Simon and Garfunkel, collaborating in the true spirit of ‘Art’ with black South African artists such as the world-famous, all male Zulu acappella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The ‘African essence’ which so organically and vividly characterizes the monumental album, was created through Simon’s incessant accumulation of authentic, traditional South African folk-songs, pop riffs and indigenous sounds, which grew into a seamless collection of tracks over which the songwriter placed his uniquely quirky folktale-esque lyrics. The apathetic archangel Fat Charlie flies from the craziness of love, whilst by the bodegas and lights on Upper Broadway a young girl with diamond soled shoes and a poor boy smelling of after-shave fall asleep on a doorstep. A magic existed in Simon’s voice and lyrics which captivated myself and siblings as we listened to our Mother’s Graceland tape on many cross-country car journeys throughout our childhood. The opening to Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes, with the hauntingly rich call of Joseph Shabalala and the Mambazo men always set our car a-rocking, as the acapella introduction faded away to be gently followed by the tinny guitar riff enticing you into the track before being abruptly cut off by the syncopated drum crash. The rhythm of dancing feet pulsates throughout Gumboots and set our car a-grooving to the incredulous and at times disapproving faces of other mothers doing the ritualistic school-morning dash. Yet we had no opinion about them, we only knew that good music is synonymous to powerful hydraulics, and away we would go, all singing at the tops of our lungs, all smiling, all alive.
The wandering child of African descent sang alongside the British child of a slightly darker pigment
Yet in the beauty of that album, Simon gave not only a face to, what he calls, the victims of Apartheid, he not only challenged the racial stereotypes that blacks were untalented, animalistic creatures only fit for manual labour, a maxim which pervaded not only South Africa, but all nations that contained multi-racial societies, but he ingeniously created a musical blending and harmonization of identities.
Graceland, for a young, dislocated Nigerian girl, whose only connection with her parents history, culture and identity was through the high-life music of Fela Kuti, Osibisa and King Sunny Ade, the brash yet seductive timbre of Hugh Masekela’s trumpet, the raw, sultry, empowering voice of Mama Miriam Makeba, and the few Yoruba and Igbo songs that fell mispronounced from her lips, created an aesthetic marriage in which collaboration, the mixing of races and cultures, was beautiful. The wandering child of African descent sang alongside the British child of a slightly darker pigment, each borrowing and learning from the other, creating music, sounds, ideas which permeated beyond her immediate sphere.
Though the creation of Graceland was in breach of UN sanctions, (at the time no collaboration between South Africa was allowed in order to physically show the Apartheid Government how much the ‘world’ condemned it), what Simon did was itself a pro-active form of criticism. Simon showed the world the talent the lay hidden in the folds of a brutal regime. He showed the world, which itself was still struggling with racism, racialization and institutional prejudice, that ‘we can work it out,’ and that there is a beauty and a potency in harmony. As New York, London, Toronto, Paris, Berlin and Madrid were swaying to the Boy in the Bubble, and dreaming Under African Skies, the voice of Black South Africa was permanently ringing in their ears.
Graceland became, to me at least, both a euphonic and utopic image of what South Africa, and what the world, could be like. The disagreements and political debates which raged within the ANC against Simon have disappeared into the murkiness of history, yet that funky, grooved bass riff of U can Call Me Al, still brings the roof down as aged parents drop to the floor, shaking their hips, kicking their legs before slowly swaying back upright, a smile beaming over the wrinkled skin of their faces, which are proudly as black as the night, whilst the pale yellow moon which gleams in their teeth and eyes calls for more.