Graceland is a record steeped in political controversy, deep cultural exploration and masterful pop music. 30 years on and with more than 16 million copies sold, it remains a timeless classic, sounding just as important as when it was released and revealing more with every listen.
In 1984, Paul Simon was recovering from the commercial flop of his fifth solo record Hearts and Bones, pressure from his record label to collaborate with Art Garfunkel despite their rather rocky relationship, as well as the collapse of his marriage with actress Carrie Fisher. He needed a change of scenery.
Simon has a fierce fascination for new sounds, covering Peruvian classics with Simon & Garfunkel and travelling to Jamaica in the early 70s to record ‘Mother and Child Reunion’. He told National Geographic: “I learned pretty early on if you want to get the music right you should probably travel to where it’s being played as opposed to asking musicians who are not familiar with it to copy it.”
Paul Simon’s journey into African music began that same year when he pressed play on his car cassette player - out came Mbaqanga, or ‘township jive’, a style originating on the streets of Soweto, South Africa. The bouncy accordion, frenetic rhythms and jangly guitar of the Boyoyo Boys tickled his hips and tantalised his imagination.
‘It dawned on me that this was something I liked so much that I could write to it. I had just been listening to it for fun, but then I became obsessed with it.” he told National Geographic in 2012.
That obsession led Paul Simon to South Africa to record with musicians there, but doing so contravened a UN cultural boycott. He says he was somewhat naive of that fact when he made the decision to go.
The move attracted hostility from a myriad of sources, but the South African black musicians union granted Simon permission to come, seeing an opportunity to project their cultural music on the world stage. Record producer and Johannesburg native Hilton Rosenthal joined with Graceland’s producer Roy Halee to assemble a group of the South African musicians who had provided inspiration for the record, including the Boyoyo Boys.
The initial recording sessions took place in a flurry of 10-30 minute jam sessions during a clandestine two week period in the garage-like Ovation Studios in Johannesburg. Those initial sessions provided the backbone for the songwriting of the following year, when Simon brought some South African musicians to New York to finish the record.
1987 saw Simon take Graceland on tour, along with a 24-member ensemble of South African singers and musicians; including the 10-man vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The performances sparked a furore amongst anti-apartheid activists, particularly those involved with Artists Against Apartheid such as Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Jerry Dammers of The Specials, who stressed solidarity with the UN boycott.
Despite of the outrage, the shows were well received with Rolling Stone writing at the time “That night, the magic kicked in, and the audience with it. The first heartbeat thump and tingly guitar twang of the party-invitation instrumental "Township Jive" immediately reaffirmed Simon's faith in the power of mbaqanga — the swinging Soweto sound that first lured him to South Africa two years ago — to bring whites and blacks together in a celebration of racial unity and dancing madness.”
Whether it was naivety or arrogance that took Paul Simon to South Africa in spite of the boycott, the resulting album brought black South African music and voices to the world in a way that had never been achieved before.
On a first listen the record sounds quite apolitical and tame, accessible Americana-tinged pop music, with the occasional exotic burst of African and creole sounds. Lyrics tell of a run-of-the-mill mid-life crisis, relationship breakdown and tipsy flings with women at industry parties.
Dive deeper into this record and you’ll find a powerful statement at the forefront of political unrest; a white American blending his own traditions with that of black South African culture, lyrics with a double telling of identity, displacement and belonging. The South African artists Simon collaborated with were treated with respect; many were paid triple union rates for their involvement and some even earned composition credits for their significant contributions.
Graceland is everything apartheid stood against and its overwhelming success was as great an affront to it as any.
Words by Peta Waller-Bryant