Great Albums: Paul Simon's Controversial 'Graceland' Introduces the West to South African Music
Paul Simon says his twenty-five year old album, Graceland, a vibrant blend of rock and roll and South African music that was named the year’s best album, was a life-changing experience.
Recently, Under African Skies, a documentary about the making of the album was released and it highlights a number of controversies, including Simon’s decision to record in South Africa in the mid-1980s and break a United Nation’s cultural boycott against South Africa because of its apartheid policies.
Graceland features an eclectic mixture of musical styles including pop, a cappella, isicathamiya, rock, and mbaqanga. Much of the album was recorded in South Africa, and it features many South African musicians and groups. The best known group is Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which still tours the U.S.
The singer says in the documentary that charts his return to the country for the 25th anniversary of the album's release: "I thought about writing political songs about the situation, but I'm not actually very good at it." He adds of the South African musicians he worked with on the album: "They didn't say 'come and tell our story.'"
"Once I saw it had an immediate acceptance and that people loved it and had great affection for the music, I thought the tour and the album were going to be a very effective way of showing just how evil apartheid was," he said. He added that “Graceland’ is "the peak in my solo career" and a breakthrough in his ability to write songs.
"If someone says 'Paul Simon made a great record but he made a political misstep,' that's OK," Simon said."I don't think that."
The African National Congress, which was apartheid's most important opponent in South Africa, protested Simon's 1985 visit to the country. After apartheid was ended in 1990, the ANC invited Simon to perform for Nelson Mandela, who would become President.
Featured on the album was Joseph Shabalala who formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo because of a series of dreams he had in 1964, in which he heard certain isicathamiya harmonies (isicathamiya being the traditional music of the Zulu people). Following their local success at wedding ceremonies and other gatherings, Shabalala entered them into isicathamiya competitions.
The group was described as 'so good' that they were eventually forbidden to enter the competitions, but welcomed to entertain at them. Although they had been recognized as an isicathamiya group in 1964, they had been singing together since the early 1950s. They released their first album, Amabutho, in 1973.
The album, along with many other releases by the group, received gold disc certification. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's collaboration with Paul Simon in 1986 paved the way for international releases and drew attention to South African music in general.
The album won the 1986 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, while the title song won the 1987 Grammy for Record of the Year. In 2007, the album was added to the United States National Recording Registry, along with another 24 significant recordings that year. It is included in many "best of" and "greatest" album lists including those of both Rolling Stone and Time Magazine. The album sold 14 million copies.
Visit your local library to obtain more resources about apartheid and the music of Paul Simon.
Paul Simon, (2004).
Under African Skies (DVD)
by Joe Berlinger; Paul Simon, (2012).
Books on apartheid
Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa
Mark Mathabane, (1986).
The autobiography of a young South African urban black growing up under apartheid depicts a struggle for survival under conditions of overwhelming brutality and deprivation. From the 5-year-old’s terror at a police “pass-raid” on the family’s shack in the Alexandra ghetto outside Johannesburg, through the long years of squalor, malnutrition, violence, and humiliation, to his departure in 1979 at 18 for the promised land of the U.S., on a miraculous tennis scholarship, Mathabane’s account has a fierce physical and psychological authenticity. —Excerpt of review by Hazel Rochman first published March 15, 1986 (Booklist).
Living Apart: South Africa under Apartheid
Ian Berry, (1996).
Both a graphic history and a stunning art book, this huge, handsome volume showcases the work of a great photojournalist whose black-and-white pictures bear witness to the truth of South Africa over more than 40 years. There are black and white people separate and together, living apart in the same place. In a matter-of-fact, quiet, personal voice, Berry comments on how it was and how it has changed; a detailed chronology fills in the background facts. —Excerpt of review by Hazel Rochman first published October 15, 1996 (Booklist).
Ladysmith Black Mambazo in concert at Ravinia, July 10, 2006 by Stephen Neilson.
Paul Simon performing in 2007.