This year sees the 25th anniversary of the release of Paul Simon‘s Graceland album. It is one of my favourite albums of all time, and it is my favourite by Paul Simon, including his Simon & Garfunkel days (and, that means it is up against some pretty good albums like “There goes rhymin’ Simon” and “Bridge over troubled water“). To my mind, it is one of the greatest albums of all time, and certainly in a very short list of greatest albums of the 1980s, along with “The Joshua Tree” by U2, “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush, and one or two others. Graceland won the 1987 Grammy for the best album of the year.
I remember first hearing Graceland from a bootleg tape I bought in Bangkok in October 1986. I liked it straight away, even though it was like nothing I had ever heard before. I think it was the first time I had really heard any “African” music, and I was breath-taken by the complex rhythms and melodies in the music. [For any authorities reading this, I have since bought the album on record, CD, and just a few weeks ago downloaded from iTunes the 25th Anniversary edition, so have more than paid my royalty fees to Paul Simon and Warner Brothers 🙂 ]
On Tuesday of last week (3rd of July 2012), the BBC broadcast a fascinating documentary called “Paul Simon’s Graceland – Under African Skies”. The programme in particular looked at the album’s impact on the struggle going on at the time for South African liberation under the racist Apartheid system, but it also talked about the recording process for some of the songs.
Whether Paul Simon helped or hindered the cause for South African blacks’ liberation is a very interesting debate. Yes, he broke the UN embargo on cultural exchanges with South Africa, and flew in the face of the desires of the African National Congress and Artists Against Apartheid. But, as he points out in this documentary, he was invited by black musicians to go there and play music with them, and certainly his album Graceland brought this “township music” to an audience it would never otherwise have reached. I myself had not heard any African or South African music before I heard Graceland, but soon after I bought an album by LadySmith Black Mambazo. I have since gone on to buy albums by the Bhundu Boys, The Four Brothers and John Chibadura.
There is an excellent series of programmes available via the BBC Radio 3 website called “World Music“. Personally my two favourites are the ones Andy Kershaw made on South African music, Kershaw in South Africa, and on Zimbabwean music, Kershaw in Zimabwe.
My favourite song on the Graceland album is “Under African Skies“, although after saying that there is not a song that I don’t like. But, this one stands slightly higher in my liking than the others. The original version of the album has Linda Ronstadt duetting with Paul Simon. In fact, Simon specifically wrote the verse which begins
In early memory
Was ringing ’round my nursery door
I said take this child, Lord
From Tucson, Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through harmony
And she won’t bother you no more
for Ronstadt, as Ronstadt grew up in Tuscon, AZ..
The other version of this song that I adore is the version performed by Paul Simon in the Graceland concenrt he did in Harare, Zimbabwe. For this song he invites “mama Africa”, Miriam Makeba, onto stage to sing with him. Here is a YouTube clip of this version.
Is Graceland the best album Paul Simon has done? Is it the best album of the 1980s? What is your favourite Graceland song?