A Fireworks Display Made in Heaven: Looking Back at Graceland, 25 Years On

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“There was a bright light, a shattering of shop windows. The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.”

The words carried the urgency of a dispatch from a war-zone, but they fell with languid grace to a melody that swooned, buoyed by the kick of the drums and the pop-and-slide of the fretless bass.

I first heard these sounds at a house-party in Kensington, Johannesburg, deep in the heart of the State of Emergency in 1986, and they stopped me in my tracks.

This was the album everyone had been talking about. This was the man who had come from New York City on a pilgrimage to the roots of rhythm. This was Graceland.

Now it is 25 years later, and Paul Simon and his entourage – including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ray Phiri, Barney Rachabane and others from the old crew – are touring the world again, starting with a concert in Hyde Park in London this weekend. This time, alas, we don’t appear to be on the map.

It feels like a letdown, an affront even, but it seems churlish to complain, because Graceland itself is the map: the epicentre, the point of embarkation, the cradle that keeps on rocking.

Every good poet is a prophet too, and Paul Simon, more than many of us, imagined the kind of society that would be born when the shrapnel stopped raining, and the bright light turned out to be a rainbow in the sky.

“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” he sang. “This is the long-distance call.”

The distance of memory is bridged with music, and even today, when I hear the opening chords of that piano accordion, and the mortar-thuds of percussion on The Boy in the Bubble, my heartbeat trips and the blood rushes to my head.

This music is an act of alchemy, a combustion of cultures and contradictions, energies and ideas sparking off each other and spinning in infinity. Graceland is a fireworks display made in heaven.

Our long lost pal is 70 now, and still he has to justify and defend what he did in 1985, coming to Johannesburg not to perform, but to play in a studio with singers and musicians who had to carry passes in their pockets and hurry home to the townships when darkness fell.

South Africa was an island in the mid-80s, ringed by razor wire, cold-shouldered by the world. Paul Simon had slipped beneath the barricades, a foreign man surrounded by the sounds that had seduced him when he first heard that bootleg tape of accordion jive by the Boyoyo Boys.

Beyond the waters, the air was toxic and laced with seething. Bruce and Bono and Bob Dylan and the gang were singing “We ain’t gonna play Sun City”; the Special AKA were singing “Free Nelson Mandela”; and an Irish duo called Microdisney released an album with a title that shocked me when I thumbed across it in the racks at the Hillbrow Look & Listen. We Hate You South African Bastards.

Then I realised that they probably didn’t hate each and every one of us; just a select minority. But I had heard Graceland, and in an odd way it felt good to be connected to something that was loved and worth loving. The music of South Africa.

So when Paul Simon came back to Africa, on Valentine’s Day in 1987, I was there at Rufaro Stadium in Harare to greet him.

It was the Graceland Concert, a jubilation, a revival, an almost-homecoming, with only the Limpopo and the Apartheid regime to stop the music from seeping back to its roots. Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba were on the bill too; they hadn’t been back home in more than two decades.

The night before the gig, there was a Press conference at a smart hotel in the city. A South African journalist opened by asking Paul Simon how he felt about bringing the show to Zimbabwe, on the doorstep of South Africa. “Very excited,” said Simon. Then the real questions started.

As I listen to the tape now, through all the hiss and warble of the years, I can hear the exasperation in Simon’s voice as he outlines his understanding of the UN-backed cultural boycott he was accused of breaking. Technically, he did break it, by venturing into South Africa to make music without the formal blessing of the ANC-in-exile.

But he felt he could make a stronger, “more real” statement against Apartheid by working with South African musicians, and composing songs that would fit with their music.

He said that people who viewed the world through a political spectrum,  rather than a cultural spectrum, had advised him not to go, no matter how good his intentions were. And if he had gone, he should have made music that was strictly, specifically anti-Apartheid. “And there,” he said, “is where the disagreement occurred.”

Was Paul Simon naïve about the politics of the cultural boycott? Was he simply arrogant? Was he wrong to make Graceland in the country of its genesis, rather than by remote control, in New York? Were all the musicians wrong to accept his invitation? Were Hugh and Miriam wrong to join him on the tour?

Then a foreign correspondent stood up, and under the guise of asking a question, made a statement.

He said he found it very strange that an artist of Paul Simon’s stature would name an album of South African music after a mansion that was associated with the slave trade of the American South.

Paul Simon looked stunned. He explained, slowly, that the home of Elvis Presley was never a slave mansion. It had been built by a Greek chiropractor, who had named it after his wife, whose name was Grace. The next day, there was music.

Paul Simon wore a white tee-shirt and black jeans, and he cradled a semi-acoustic guitar that shone under African skies. All around him was the blare of brass and the trill of the pennywhistle and the galloping of congas, and the voices, soaring in song. The beatific smile almost never left his face.

Hugh Masakela strode onto the stage, put a trumpet to his lips, and parped a fanfare into a chant for freedom: “Bring back! Nelson Mandela! Bring him back home to So-we-to!” Then he did a little dance with his elbows at his sides, shuffling the way Madiba would, just three years down the line.

The air was filled with hope and longing. Miriam Makeba sang a duet with Simon, twirling the line about the girl from Tuscon, Arizona, into a wistful memory of the girl from the township of Mofolo.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo snaked in from the wings, waving their hands, stepping lightly, as if they had diamonds on the soles of their shoes. “Hello my baby,” they sang, over and over. “Hello my sweet.”

The other day, I played Graceland on the car stereo, and my travelling companion, my 14-year-old son, wrinkled his nose and said, “What’s this weird music?” I told him, and he went back to fiddling with his BB.

Later in the week, I heard You Can Call Me Al pumping from his bedroom. He had downloaded the album onto his phone. I was astounded. He could have just asked me for the CD.

This music has swirled inside my head for 25 years; it has occupied my heart and soul. But only recently have I heard it for what it really is: an album of Gospel music, about a man trapped in a mid-life crisis, searching for his state of grace, his shot at redemption, his reason to believe. He found it here.

Graceland is its own best argument against the politics and the politicians, the boycotts and the protestors, and as much as we may say that Paul Simon came to take the music that gave life to his songs, he left behind as much as he took.

An album that helped to open South Africa to the world, and in its own small way, helped to make the world a more joyful and noisy place. These are the roots of rhythm, and the roots of rhythm remain.

*This piece was written for the Mail & Guardian onlinehttp://mg.co.za/article/2012-07-11-the-path-to-graceland