In 1986, when Paul Simon
, it was not without controversy. For starters, he recorded five of the tracks in South Africa, in collaboration with local musicians (mostly black folks, who were living under the oppression of Apartheid
- a strict law of segregation which kept the white minority in power). That Paul Simon - a decidedly white American man - was collaborating with these artists was in blatant defiance of the code of Apartheid. Further, there was a cultural boycott on the nation as the world tried to pressure them to end Apartheid.
Interested in exposing the world to African musicians, and no doubt curious of how the influence of those musicians could impact his songwriting, Simon lit out. The result, it should be no surprise anymore, was a remarkable album which pushed the limits of both American folk and pop music and that of South Africa. Here, on the 25th Anniversary reissue, we get to hear Simon talk about the making of the album, specifically the title track (purchase/download
), and how the energy of that song came to be. He talks about imagining it first with a country rhythm, then giving over to the way his collaborators interpreted American country music. Stumped, he finally decided to visit Elvis Presley
's home/museum and wound up discovering the song he was trying to express was a traveling song and one about moving on. His ability to effortlessly bounce the meaning of the word "Graceland
" around so that it not only represented a physical structure in Memphis, Tenn., but also a state of mind and a journey toward forgiveness, was tantamount to the song's cohesion.
After listening to Simon describe the process, reconsidering the song itself feels like a new experience, one which is freckled with grace and colored by the fusion between American ideas and African interpretations. It's an outstanding accomplishment and a fitting representation of the way music can bridge cultures and traditions. Simon explains how, through the song, he discovered the magic of cross-cultural collaboration, when "people are able to listen to each other and make associations... [they] play their own music the way it fits into another culture."
'Under African Skies'
Included in this reissue of Graceland
is a documentary film directed by Peabody Award winner Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost
, Brother's Keeper
), which splices interviews with Paul Simon together with images and memories of the African recording sessions. Here, Simon talks about the intensity in the studio, some of the friction between the artists and engineers, and the outside world. He also talks of the artistry involved in co-writing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo
founder Joseph Shabalala (with whom he wrote "Homeless
Berlinger includes fantastic concert footage from a performance where Simon was reunited with the musicians from those South African sessions. All told, the film goes beyond the music itself to shed light on how the very making of it helped to shift a certain consciousness - not only in art (toward an interest in the folk music indigenous to different parts of the world), but also in politics and social issues.
The Bottom Line
Fans of the original Graceland
album will discover this box set to be an outstanding collector's item, as the album itself includes demos and raw tracks from the South Africa Sessions and the track where Simon tells the story of the title track. There's also an extensive booklet with photos and liners, and the director's cut of the film Under African Skies
). This is not a "remastered" reissue bent at driving dollars and reviving the career of an aging singer-songwriter. This is a package which offers new angles from which one can appreciate one of the most career-defining artistic moments in Paul Simon's oeuvre.