As decades begin to accumulate after an album’s release, the historical context can fade, especially for those not even born when it hit the market. Paul Simon’s Graceland arrived four years before South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist, was unconditionally released after 27 years in prison, five years before apartheid was finally abolished, and eight years before Mandela himself was elected president in South Africa’s first multiracial general election.
Before Graceland, South Africa’s long and distinctive musical heritage was largely unknown beyond its borders, aside from occasional glimpses provided by records such as the 1952 Weavers song “Wimoweh” (based on South African artist Solomon Linda’s “Mbube”…or Lion), which The Tokens, in turn, heavily revised for their 1961 pop hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (reaching #1 on the Billboard Top 100). World music aficionado Peter Gabriel has this to say about Graceland’s cultural impact:
Prior to Graceland, the music of South Africa was largely unknown outside the country, except to a small minority of world music fans… The music at its best brimmed with life and emotion and was charged with a blend of spirituality and sensuality. With his elegant composition and diffident observations, Paul Simon fused these elements with his own extraordinary songwriting skills. He produced an irresistible and classic album which I have played many, many times.
Simon, at this point in his career, had already ventured into world music with Peruvian folk instrumentalists Los Incas on “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” from the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water…and with members of ska and reggae artist Jimmy Cliff’s backing group on the 1972 single “Mother and Child Reunion,” recorded in Kingston, Jamaica (interestingly, the only country where this single reached #1 was South Africa, fourteen years before Graceland). But Simon’s career had been in decline in the 1980s. Hearts and Bones, the album which preceded Graceland, was a commercial and critical disappointment, and Simon has said about this period in his life that he felt he’d irretrievably lost his inspiration.
But a singer/songwriter named Heidi Berg, with whom he’d been working at the time, made him a cassette of an instrumental album entitled “Gumboots: Accordion Jive Volume II,” a compilation of South African mbaqanga music. As Billboard Editor-in-Chief Timothy White writes in the liner notes for the tenth anniversary edition of Graceland:
Simon was fascinated by the gliding, harmony-laced tumult of the Boyoyo Boys Band and other township jive artists from the dusty lanes of Soweto. He contacted Johannesburg producer Hilton Rosenthal, who mailed him another 20 albums’ worth of the segregated work camps’ best acts. The sessions that ensued in London and in New York with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and in Los Angeles with South African guitarist Chikapa “Ray” Phiri’s popular Gallo Records group, Stimela, lent shape to the Graceland epic.
Like he’d done with “Mother and Child Reunion” years before, Simon laid down the tracks first and then, back home, created lyrics to fit. It took him quite a while to find the right words for the complicated syncopation of the layered tracks. “Lyrics like ‘Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party’ were written,” Simon says, “not just to tell a story but to carefully scan with the rhythms.”
This thoughtful collaboration is the heart and soul of Graceland. As White comments in the liner notes:
The essential prayer of all those downtrodden or captive to injustice is that their predicament might resonate in the hearts of honorable people, however distant, as if compassion were a rhythmic sonority that no obstruction could impede or subdue. For the black citizens of Soweto, as well as those elsewhere who were touched by their suffering and resilient spirit, the sincerity of superstar Paul Simon’s interest in the proud messages of South Africa’s proletarian music seemed a miraculous gesture of respect in synch with many of the country’s deepest longings and convictions. Unpolitical in its agenda and unconditional in its enthusiasm, Simon’s reflex passion for [this] music…signified a turning point in the modern appreciation of black South Africa’s hybrid rural/ghetto heritage, cementing its worth at home as well as abroad.
The album starts off with the lone, exotic sound of Lesotho musician Forere Motloheloa’s accordion, followed up immediately by the shocking timing of Vusi Khumalo’s initial drum licks and the freedom in Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass. Here was an opening sound like no other Paul Simon project, compelling from its first measure, and when Simon begins to sing about “the days of miracle and wonder,” the listener feels fully admitted to the epiphany to come. This opening track, The Boy in the Bubble, provides a dramatic catalogue of contemporary images:
It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio…
It’s a turn-around jump shot
It’s everybody jump start
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
The Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
—“The Boy in the Bubble” ©1986 Paul Simon (BMI)
The title track, Graceland, comes next, featuring backing vocals by the Everly Brothers and extolling the mysterious virtues of a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee:
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending,
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
—“Graceland” ©1986 Paul Simon (BMI)
Ray Phiri’s guitar is particularly inventive on this track, and the rhythm section provides an irrepressible energy. The lyrics are again far-ranging and yet startlingly introspective.
The Gaza Sisters provide backing vocals in the Shangaan language on the third track, I Know What I Know…and theirs is a strangely beguiling jolt of sound, coming in unexpectedly to catch the listener off-guard, an effect Simon planned. Gaza Sister Sonti Mndebele explains: “It’s different because it’s like you’re singing out of tune sometimes, but that is how it should sound.” The tempo is fast, the lyrics providing snatches of conversation at a party where hollow posturing is the order of the day.
The Boyoyo Boys are featured on Gumboots, a track as fast-paced and unpredictable as a New York taxi ride, and the a cappella singers of the Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambazo introduce the opening bars of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, which Simon co-wrote with group leader Joseph Shabalala. This distinctive vocal sound has become familiar now, but in 1986 it was as exotic and compelling as a first hearing of the female singers on Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (“The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”), an album released in the US a year later.
Fifty-seven seconds in, the choral intro ends and Ray Phiri’s animated guitar introduces the next part of this song, blending lyrics about life in New York with the irrepressible vitality of the South African musicians. Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass is particularly memorable here, bouncing free and feckless, irresistibly upbeat.
The biggest single from the album is its sixth track, You Can Call Me Al, which Al Gore used in his 2000 presidential campaign and, speaking personally as someone who named himself Al in the fifth grade (from my initials), I love my association with this song. The names “Al” and “Betty” in the lyrics came from a party attended by Simon and Peggy Harper, his wife at the time, during which French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez mistakenly referred to the couple as “Al and Betty.”
Unlike most of the album’s tracks, this song was recorded completely in New York. The session date was in April 1986, which is not only my birth month but the month and year my son Graham was born. It reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked the Top Five in seven countries.
From the track’s opening bars, Rob Mounsey’s synthesizer and the guitar synthesizer played by King Crimson’s Adrian Belew are key components in a compelling riff later picked up by horns and woodwinds. The syncopated township jive in the rhythm section is impossible to resist, with standout work by drummer Isaac Mtshali (his emphasis on the last beat in the four-beat measure is particularly effective) and bassist Bakithi Kumalo, whose bass run at Time 3:44 is palindromed by engineer Roy Halee, who only recorded the first half and then played it backwards to make the second half. There’s even a pennywhistle solo by jazz musician Morris Goldberg, which is a perfect sound for a song with such sheer exuberance.
Under African Skies provides a duet with Linda Ronstadt, vocals recorded in LA, instrumentals in New York, its lyrics looking for commonalities in the lives of two musicians, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Joseph Shabalala and Ronstadt herself. While the melody is wistful and affecting, Simon’s lyrics here are perhaps the weakest on the album, particularly how little is offered about Shabalala: we learn he’s black, his eyes reflecting “the pale yellow moon”…that he likes to take nocturnal walks…and has lived in Africa all his life. Sometimes, scant detail can be productively suggestive, but in this case not so much. There are more details about Ronstadt: her childhood in Tucson, Arizona, her own ethnic musical heritage, and how musical aspiration might lead her away from both. But in the end, for me, this song is far more compelling for its sounds than for any universal truths it tries to conjure up.
Homeless provides another duet with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the music from Shabalala, adapting a Zulu wedding song. The bilingual lyrics offer the album’s most generous sampling of Zulu words, which are themselves a kind of music to Western ears. In the “somebody say” sections, the African singers articulate a distinctive sonic effect, equal parts heartbeat, breath, and determination, rendered in the printed lyrics as “ih hih ih hih ih.” Once you hear it, you never lose its echo.
The last three tracks offer another collaboration with Ray Phiri (his skittering guitar opens Crazy Love Vol. II) and new collaborations with the Cajun zydeco band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters (That Was Your Mother) and the East LA Chicano rock of Los Lobos (All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints). Placed at the end of the album, these two songs are heard with fresh sonic perspective after our extended exposure to the African sounds and arrangements on the first nine tracks.
In a documentary on the 10th Anniversary edition, Ray Phiri says, “Paul was the one who was brave enough to say, ‘Listen, man, it’s all about music at the end of the day. Let’s have fun.’” That spirit shines through every song on this Grammy-winning album.
In this occasional series, I celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and whenever I get around to it. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or at least piques your curiosity about an album you may have overlooked.