“Under African Skies”: The story of “Graceland”, BBC4
Absolutely fantastic film by Joe Berlinger about the making of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, a record I think is perhaps the greatest ever made. It is a sublime paean to the African rhythms that underpin all of Western popular music, and yet it was hugely controversial because of Simon’s apparent disregard for the UN and ANC cultural boycott of the time. It is truly a landmark album, an unprecedented musical, cultural, social and political phenomenon, and I can’t think of any other artistic creation that has had such a monumental effect on the world.
The film doesn’t shirk the issues; time and space is given to those, like Dali Tambo of Artists Against Apartheid, who acknowledges the creativity but says, at the time, it was not “helpful”. Simon visits Tambo and takes it on the chin: it’s been on his mind all this time, he says. As they spar on Tambo’s couch, there are uncomfortable moments of honesty that, beautifully, end with Simon apologising if his lack of awareness at any time caused Tambo to feel he disrespected the cause, and Tambo calling Simon brother and embracing him.
However, it’s a tale of the agendas of politicians clashing with the artistic aesthetic. Ray Phiri, the elegant, handsome guitarist who made sounds we’d really never heard before, speaks of music being the closest thing to a religion, and that it has transformative powers that, when it’s done right, can bring people together and solve their problems. “Graceland did that,” he says, simply. He tells of a meeting with ANC activists in London who instructed him to go home and refuse to work with Simon because he broke the cultural boycott, and that South Africans should not be performing anywhere in the world. “Tell me like I’m a seven year old what I have done wrong,’ he replies. “I am the victim here. How can you victimise the victim?”
The discussion of “Gumboots” is revealing. Obsessed with a cassette of Accordion Jive Hits by the Boyoyo Boys, he had written lyrics to be recorded over the top of their music, a pattern repeated on several tracks. His producer told him that he could easily cut the track in the US with session musicians, but that was unthinkable to him; he wanted the original artists involved. So conforming to the cultural boycott would have seen the music of the South African blacks appropriated, stolen, and their work would never have been acknowledged.
What is obvious is that Graceland informed. I have the impression that it was the biggest step that had been taken so far in bringing world music to a general audience, and African music which had been bubbling under the surface of the music industry’s consciousness took off worldwide thereafter. But not only that, it brought music from the US to Africa; musician after musician has the same story of arriving at the studio not having a clue who Paul Simon was, a fact that surely indicated better than any other the hermetically sealed prison of ignorance white South Africa found it convenient to keep them locked up in. Simon, in a sense, kicked open the prison door, even in a simple act of inviting them to New York and reassuring them that they didn’t need a permit to visit Central Park.
There is, undoubtedly, a naivety and an arrogance in Simon. He refused Harry Belafonte’s offer of assistance in smoothing the way with the ANC because art, as he saw it, wasn’t going to beg permission from any one political group. His honesty about almost buying into the patriarchal racism of the white South Africans is uncomfortable to hear, and there are moments where you think, “Oh come on,” when, for example, he justifies himself to Tambo by saying that all the musicians treated each other as equals; you can almost hear Tambo thinking, “Yes, Paul, but you weren’t all equal, were you?”. However, the news announcer from 1985 gets it right when he calls the album a celebration of black South Africa, because that’s what it was.
Of course his actions were dubious, but I think, in his stubbornness, he was ahead of us all in that the album was so successful in bringing neglected musicians to the world’s attention and in raising awareness of the horrors of apartheid that, I believe, hastened its downfall. He showed the world that while young musicians here formed bands as a right of passage, there they had to go through he same process of growth under the shadow of the sjambok. When Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest and, all carping aside, one of the most philanthropic women on the planet, says it stirred her to take an interest and act in South Africa, you know something important is happening; on the other hand, his world tour was attacked, on one occasion by a hand grenade. I believe “Graceland” hastened the release of Nelson Mandela and the fall of apartheid; would Mandela have embraced Simon in front of the world’s media in 1992 if he hadn’t thought the same?
But if I give him a free pass just because I admire the man’s music so much and because, in this instance, it all worked out fine, am I also saying that I’d be happy for the same thing to happen in, for example, Israel? Well, I’m not sure. Simon wasn’t a cricketer or rugby player competing against white teams that excluded blacks, nor was he a businessman working with whites who exploited cheap and repressed black labour; he was working with blacks, empowering them, giving them a voice to say whatever they wanted, a lot of which had nothing to do with politics. How would I feel about a British film maker going to Gaza and enabling and empowering young dispossessed Palestinians tell their stories? Would that be such a bad thing? And yet…
However, it’s all about the music those musicians make – that’s what they want to be remembered, and it’s just perfect music at that. I have favourites on the album, and it’s great to see how they were made. The irresistible accordion groove of “Boy in the Bubble” is the brainchild of Forere Motloheloa, and hearing Simon in rehearsals today singing the lyrics counterpointed against Forere’s Lesotho traditional song is fantastic. And the transcendence of music as an empowering force is absolutely clear in the section on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s recording of the angelic “Homeless”, one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded, I think. “I call Paul Simon ‘brother’ every day, because of the music” says Joseph Shabalala; the love is obvious, especially when he recounts Simon greeting him, the first time Shabalala had ever been hugged by a white man.
The film is available on iPlayer or in the shops; it’s a must watch, a must buy. And if you don’t have the album – well, that’s a gaping hole in your life that I suggest you remedy as soon as possible. I’ve got it on my turntable right now, and am grinning from ear to ear at the gloriousness of “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”.