Paul Simon | Graceland: 25th Anniversary Edition (Sony Legacy)

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graceland2012I love the African sounds, but Simon’s voice and lyrics seem tacked on, with him taking a free ride on the talent of more talented musicians.

 

Paul Simon’s Graceland was a huge hit on its first release in 1986, and helped revive his career while also ushering in the world music boom. It also drew substantial criticism since it was recorded in South Africa, then under a cultural boycott due to the apartheid laws that crippled the lives of the nonwhite majority of the country, and also drew charges of cultural imperialism (due to the image of a rich white guy appropriating the work of poor black Africans). Now the album is available in a generous package, including a remastered CD with 6 bonus tracks, a 28-page booklet, and a DVD, Under African Skies, tracing the history of the CD while also documenting the 25th anniversary reunion concert.

We take the blending of American pop and all kinds of world music for granted today, but it was something new when Simon recorded Graceland. That’s the greatest aspect of the album for me: It brought some amazing African musicians (most famously, Ladysmith Black Mambazo) to much wider audiences than they would have otherwise enjoyed. I’m not as in love with the album as most people seem to be, but I still think it’s one you need to know in order to understand the contemporary music scene. I love the African sounds, but Simon’s voice and lyrics seem tacked on, with him taking a free ride on the talent of more talented musicians. Not everyone agrees with me, however, so I definitely think you need to hear this one and make your own judgment.

The accompanying DVD, Under African Skies, was directed by Joe Berlinger and originally aired on A & E (it was nominated for three Emmys). It follows Simon back to South Africa for a reunion concert on the 25th anniversary of the original release of the Graceland album. There’s a lot of typical band reunion clichés—staged reunions, gushing testimonies, talking heads with telling anecdotes—but Berlinger saves Under African Skies from that pedestrian course by his insistence on confronting the political issues Simon seems to have hoped would have faded by now.

In case this is all ancient history to you, apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, and the country was under a cultural boycott at the time of the Graceland concert (South Africa had been banned from the Olympics since 1964, for instance). Simon’s choice to go there and perform was seen at worst as approval of the government’s actions, and at best as astoundingly insensitive. Add to this the fact that the album revived Simon’s flagging career, and he looks more like an opportunist than the disinterested musician he presents himself to be.

In this film, Simon comes off like a very old, but still spoiled, child, unwilling to think outside the boundaries of his narrow little world. It’s all very well to say that art should be above politics when you live the life of a privileged white person in the most powerful country in the world; it’s quite another to deny the importance of practical concerns in a country where most of the population lives under a legal code that denies them the human rights you take for granted. Newsreel footage and testimony from black South Africans shows the viewer the reality of what apartheid meant to those who were living it, and Berlinger makes this point without dwelling on it.

In the long run, the music is what remains, so maybe Simon was right to keep his narrow focus and get the album made. The world of music would be poorer without it. | Sarah Boslaugh

RIYL: Ladysmith Black Mambazo: The Warner Brothers Collection; Best of the Black President (Fela Kuti)

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