I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.

I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.

The story begins with Paul Simon randomly getting his hands on a cassette of “Gumboots” by the Boyoyo Boys. He was hooked instantly, as anyone with ears and a soul would be.

But most of us would just enjoy the tape and leave it at that. Paul Simon needed to go to South Africa and participate, study, and appropriate the sounds for himself. He had borrowed from Afro-Cuban music before several times, but this would be the deepest he ever immersed himself in another musical culture. Here’s an awesome Kleptones mixtape of the music Paul Simon was after.

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Most of the South African guys had never heard of Paul Simon. The general attitude was, “Why does this rich American pop star want to throw a bunch of money at me?” Simon spent two weeks in Ovation Studios in Johannesburg, jamming with and recording various local musicians. He came away with a collection of devastating grooves that he and producer Roy Halee would meticulously edit into the best adult-contemporary pop songs ever written.

Any story about South Africa in the 1980s is going to be filled with sadness. When the South African musicians were in New York to cut additional tracks, they wanted to go to Central Park, and they asked where they could get a permit. They didn’t know that they were allowed to just walk over there. There’s extremely upsetting footage of white cops in riot gear beating the hell out of unarmed black people who were peacefully sitting and listening to Ray Phiri’s band play some political songs.

The film was made in cooperation with Paul Simon’s people, so of course it portrays him positively. But it gives extensive voice to his anti-Apartheid critics. Simon broke the cultural boycott, there’s no getting around it. However good his intentions were in doing so, he was acting against the wishes of a lot of activists inside and outside South Africa. There’s an extremely tense scene at an all-black college where a student is furiously haranguing Simon, who’s responding with weak stuff about how art transcends politics. In the years since, Simon has had time to formulate a better defense, that his breaking of the boycott put human faces on the victims of Apartheid for a lot of previously apathetic Americans. This was true for me — “You Can Call Me Al” meant a lot more to me than “Biko,” though my real education about Apartheid came from reading Kaffir Boy in school.

Certainly, the musicians are glad of the chance to have worked with Simon. They got to leave their miserable country for a little while, make some money, play for huge audiences all over the world, get driven around in limos, and generally be treated with respect and dignity for a change. Simon gave some songwriting co-credits that must have been worth a fortune in royalties over the years. He didn’t give nearly enough co-writer credit, but at least he didn’t totally screw the South Africans.

I knew Simon had based the songs on grooves he had heard the South African musicians play. I didn’t realize how literally he copied and pasted, though. Forere Motloheloa, the accordion player on “Boy In The Bubble,” had been playing that opening riff for a long time before Paul Simon showed up.

There’s a beautiful scene where Motloheloa is shown playing the riff solo, way out in the countryside in Lesotho, with a few villagers sitting around and listening. However much Simon may have edited and directed the other grooves, a lot of the South Africans’ material ended up in the songs intact. Simon’s musical instincts in that regard were impeccable; his ethics, maybe less so. Like I said, there should be a lot more co-writing credits on that record. Ethan Zuckerman wrote a long and nuanced post on this issue in the broader context of western appropriation of African music; it’s well worth the read.

Whatever I may think of Paul Simon as a human being, there’s no argument that he has staggering songcraft. It was wonderful to get a window into his process. The best story is about the chorus to “Graceland,” which Simon originally had as a meaningless placeholder lyric. But he couldn’t get it out of his head, and so finally he decided that he might have to go visit Graceland for the first time. On the drive down there, he got hit with the line, “the Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar.” After the fact, he was able to consciously connect up America’s fraught history with Africans and their music, and how that history implicated him personally.

The musical star of Graceland is fretless bassist Bakithi Kumalo. Check out the riff he plays on “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” at 2:45 and throughout. His time, tone and intonation are unbelievable.

As for the famous Saturday Night Live performance of “Diamonds” by the Graceland band? The album wasn’t even done yet — Ladysmith Black Mambazo was in New York to record the song, and Simon was booked for SNL, so he figured, why not. The studio audience must have been dumbfounded, and the performance was a national sensation.

While we’re on the subject, check out Tangoterje’s delightful remix of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.”

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Also, check out “Brazilian Diamonds” by DJ Earworm, a mashup of Simon and Django Reinhardt.

Simon wrote “Homeless” for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, trying his best to imitate their style. Then they fixed it up for him, translating lyrics into Zulu and writing an intro and ending. The lyrics to the last part say something like, “We are the best at singing in this style.” Can’t argue with that. “Homeless” was recorded live in the big room at Abbey Road. The first day, they couldn’t get it to come together, and the Ladysmith guys were distraught. They stayed up late that night working on the arrangement, and on the second day they nailed it in two takes.

This performance and the one above are from an epic concert the Graceland band did in Zimbabwe in 1987. I wouldn’t have minded seeing that band with Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela in Zimbabwe. No sir, I would not have.

My favorite song on Graceland, and one of my top favorite songs of all time, is “You Can Call Me Al,” not least for the video with Chevy Chase.

Here’s a long interview with Roy Halee about putting that track together, about the rest of the album, and about Paul Simon’s studio approach generally.

The film leaves out a few large issues. I seem to remember some friction between Simon and Los Lobos over songwriting credit. Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t mention Los Lobos. Also, it fails to mention that a lot of those songs were about Simon’s divorces, from his first wife, and then from Carrie Fisher. (“Losing love is like a window in your heart, everybody sees you’re blown apart.”)

I would especially have liked to hear about how Simon’s Jewish heritage draws him to outsiders and the oppressed. Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, says Simon approached him at first like a child seeking a father’s approval. That statement bears some unpacking. A lot of Jewish kids of Simon’s time and place were substantially raised by black caretakers. Was Simon? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

2 thoughts on “Graceland

  1. These clips were a wonderful soundtrack to kick off a stormy day. I’m dying to see the movie now, thanks for the rec and for this comprehensive breakdown and all the links. I love My Heart’s in Accra, but hadn’t read that post on appropriating African music.

    Semi related, I was wrong, Amadou and Mariam are from Mali, not Senegal.

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