Paul Simon: The 25th Anniversary of Graceland

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Graceland.  It was one of the most improbable and difficult musical productions ever.   Apartheid was in full force in 1986, Nelson Mandela was still in prison on Robbin’s Island, Johannesburg was still segregated.  We on the outside got glimpses of the South African music scene of the time on the 1977 BBC documentary Rhythms of Resistance, shot underground and unseen by the watchful eye of apartheid’s minders.

KCRW played a lot of African music in the early 80s, the only public station doing it, so LA audiences knew about Zulu men’s choirs like the Cockerel Boys, Afabana Boseka, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which we purchased as imports from a top Jo’Burg record store, Kohinor (we actually asked people visiting there or from there bring us these lp’s)   One of KCRW’s music staff was even sending Paul Simon cassettes of the South African music we had been playing.  KCRW was teaching Paul Simon about African music!

I was fortunate to interview Paul Simon in September, 1986.   It was the only LA interview he gave, and it was because we knew African music at KCRW and had the relationship with Paul.  I recently transferred the cassette aircheck of the interview onto cd and was moved by what Paul Simon said.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the zulu men’s choir based in the Ladysmith black township, had never flown on a plane.  When they arrived at JFK airport, they were picked up by a white limo with a white driver.  They couldn’t believe it.  Then Joseph Shaballalla, leader of the group, suddenly looked sad as he asked Paul when they had to register with the police.   Paul said they didn’t,  that the U.S. wasn’t like South Africa.

Later Paul told of how he took them to New York’s great music store, Manny’s Music, and asked them which instruments they wanted to buy.   They had their eyes on some expensive instruments, but instead chose instruments they could better afford.  Before they left, Simon returned and bought them all the instruments they really wanted.   And gave the guitarist his own personal guitar.

Paul Simon was assailed later by people who thought he took advantage of the South African musicians, didn’t pay them correctly, and so on.  They didn’t know that there weren’t musicians unions for blacks in South Africa then, only for white musicians.  Simon was attacked by hecklers when he later spoke at Howard University.   It was more a protest of how black musicians have been ripped off by record companies in the past–including Motown–than about any mistreatment or impropriety by Paul.  His business dealings on Graceland were impeccable and beyond reproach.

Graceland is still a remarkable record.  It’s both timely and a time-capsule, and I’m glad Columbia Legacy has reissued a new cd edition with enhanced content.  It includes a film documentary about Graceland called Under African Skies, which also captures Simon’s return to South Africa so many  years later.