Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Graceland at 25: Acclaimed and still influential

Graceland at 25/ Still rightly acclaimed and controversial, too

I read with interest recently the news of the 25th anniversary of Graceland, Paul Simon's groundbreaking album, that will be commemorated with musical and film celebrations this year.

On June 5, Graceland 25th anniversary editions will be released to commemorate the anniversary of the acclaimed and influential 1986 album that continues to inspire generations of music fans. Simon will headline the Hard Rock Calling festival in London July 13-15. A film, Under African Skies, which documents the story of the album and its attendant controversies, screens Wednesday in Toronto.

Peter Aspden, a culture columnist for the Financial Times of London, wrote two weeks ago about how Graceland was rightly acclaimed on its release in 1986. Yet, it was also dogged by political controversy, too.

Paul Simon
You see, in collaborating with a talented group of South African musicians that included the a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon was accused of having broken the cultural boycott against the nation's apartheid regime. As Aspden commented, "it was a mess of an argument and it continues to be so today."

Much of Graceland was recorded in South Africa and it featured many South African groups and musicians. And, while Simon faced accusations that he had broken the cultural boycott that was imposed by the rest of the world against the apartheid regime in South Africa, which at the time was in its final years, it was a view that was not supported by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee. This was because the album featured the talents of black South African musicians while offering no support to the white South African government led by State President P.W. Botha.

As Aspden opined: "No one was in any doubt as to Simon's intentions, which were entirely benign. The album brought a relatively obscure musical tradition to the ears of the world (it sold 14 million copies). The South African musicians on the album went into the project with eyes wide open. 'We used Paul as much as Paul used us,' said the guitarist Ray Phiri, one of Simon's collaborators. This was not an obvious case of cultural exploitation."

According to Aspden, Simon had his detractors. They included Jerry Dammers, who wrote the political anthem "Free Nelson Mandela." While Dammers believed it was wrong for Simon to go South Africa in the 1980s, he said it's in the past. "It's the time not to forgive and forget but to remember and forgive." And, added singer/songwriter Billy Bragg: "He was on the wrong side of the argument despite his good intentions. The cultural boycott was part of the economic boycott that brought South Africa to heel."

In traveling to South Africa when it was not politically correct to do so, Aspden said Simon "found an artistic community that was tired of being ostracized and hungry for the outside world." He created an album devoid of anger. "Not because he didn't find any there but because he believed, in that time and place, in art's power to transcend politics."

Graceland became not only Simon's most commercially successful album ~ it reached No. 3 in the national Billboard charts ~ it also drew praise and accolades for its mixture of African polyrhythms, pop, rock, Zydeco and Tex-Mex as well as the South African Zulu isicathamiya and mbaqanga singing styles. Rolling Stone called it "lovely, daring and accomplished." And, Simon said he considered the title track the best song he's ever written.

"Actually, the achievement of Graceland and what it overcame was not a political thing," Simon told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "It was an artistic bridge that was new at the time. And that was really the achievement. But the other is a juicier story."

To read Peter Aspden's March 23 column:  http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/bc70acc2-7362-11e1-9014-00144feab49a.html#axzz1qlP2VYu1

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