Paul Simon with Miriam Makeba
It would be unlike the industry to let a groundbreaking album’s 25th anniversary come and go without some sort of fanfare. Last year was that arbitrary and round number of years for Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and it proved to be as good an opportunity as any for a reunion.
It’s a commercial cycle that’s been played out over and over. The added bonus to this revisit is what Simon called a “covert political point of view,” the substance of “Graceland” between the music’s exotic voicings and the lyrics booklet.
The term “exotic” is a good place to start. “Graceland” exposed Americans to native musics of Africa – like those from South Africa, the continent’s various kingdoms, the Zulu tribes – more than any other had so far in the history of Western pop music. For many audiences, the women's vocals on “I Know What I Know” or the accordion opening “Boy in the Bubble” truly was the exotic “other.” The album was also a literal and creative integration of black with white, with one of the best-known American songwriters collaborating with black South Africans during a time of strict international sanctions and restrictions due to apartheid.
’s film “Under African Skies” addresses the many shades-in-between in the making of Simon’s “Graceland.” It persuasively refutes those who would say the album was an outright rip and co-opting of black Africans’ creation. It also addresses the songwriter's’s clumsy fielding of the UN and the anti-apartheid ANC’s cultural boycott: South Africans couldn’t record with foreigners or tour outside of their country and Americans couldn’t come to visit. Or, rather, shouldn’t.
Simon admits in the film to having been unprepared for the levels of violence, racism and racial tension in that country during the mid-‘80s. In a telling interview with ANC leader Oliver Tambo’s son Dali, he even finds some reason to apologize for the unintended conflicts he caused, even with an asterisk: art transcends political need, he says.
In other words, the film did a great deal of de-mythologizing at the same time that it validated reasons why millions of people bought “Graceland.” And it stuck mostly to that program, skimming other parts of South African history in order to give context to the 11-song set and the subsequent worldwide tour, the “Saturday Night Live” appearance, the Zimbabwe concert and the musicians' reunion last year. In between shots of old men in hats hugging each other and re-learning decades-old material was reveling in that complicated clash between the creative class and politics. In between those moments were extremely popular songs.
As a fan, I spent a quarter of the film in goosebumps. Berlinger segued between the “incidents and accidents” on “Homeless” to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” with pure, celebratory archival videos and with interviews with a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The live performance of the movie's namesake was angelic and the rehearsal videos felt like a party. Members of the band laughingly recalled first meeting this nerdy, white American guy; they and Graceland’s engineers illustrated their appreciation and frustration of Simon’s cut-and-paste method to Simonize songs for pop compositions – largely composites and co-writes.
“Music is something like prayer,” said LBM’s Joseph Shambalala, seeing angels in the architecture of the process. “Music is… the closest thing to religion,” said guitarist Ray Phiri.
It’s scenes like those during which the album was rightly elevated from a dabbling in cultural tourism to a stirring co-creation and fun time capsule, one that still influences artists today (beyond Vampire Weekend, who make a cameo). It’s an argument for “Graceland,” an observance of it and a memorial, too, for artists like Miriam Makeba who didn’t make it to the 25-year mile-marker. Much like he did in the Metallica documentary “Some Kind of Monster,” Berlinger takes up habitation in those still-fresh problems instead of thwarting them, in lock step with Simon’s own subversions.