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Posted June 10, 2012
A Comeback Album That Made A Difference
In the 1980's, South Africa had more than 15 millions blacks who lived under the brutal, segregationist system of apartheid, ruled by only a few million whites. Nelson Mandella was still in prison for trying to overthrow that system. And any entertainer who performed in South Africa ran the risk of landing on the United Nations blacklist. One person who defied that risk was Paul Simon, whose career had been floundering since his on-again, off-again reunion with Art Garfunkel in 1981. The result was "Graceland", which not only didn't put Simon on that blacklist and resuscitated his career but it helped bring greater awareness to the tremendous talent of the South African musicians who lived under these harsh conditions.
It's no secret that Simon was always fascinated with black music. His first solo album was partly recorded in Jamaica ("Mother And Child Reunion"). "Loves Me Like A Rock" sounds like the best Gospel song ever written by a Jewish New Yorker. And "Hearts And Bones" was supposed to have been a doo-wop record with Simon and Garfunkel. "Graceland", however, was an entirely different kind of beast. Simon recorded this album with a bevvy of South African musicians that included Miriam Mekaba, Hugh Maskella and The Ladysmith Black Mambazzo. These musicians give Simon's folk and soulful songs a more joyful, loopy bouyancy and even a positive attitude (all the more remarkable given the conditions at the time). Many of these musicians toured with Simon and as they did, their stories came out and helped expose the daily, grinding nature of an ugly, racist government.
This 25th anniversary collection features the album in its entireity as well as a few outtakes, the best of which are the accepella numbers Simon did with The Ladysmith Black Mambazzo ("Homeless" and "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes" are particular stand-outs). There is also a DVD which features the videos Simon did at the time---yes, Simon is here with Chevy Chase doing the hit single, "You Can Call Me Al". But the DVD also features a wonderful documentary, "Under African Skies", detailing the making of this landmark album. Just watching this documentary makes you gasp at just how hard it was for Simon and these musicians to make this record. Though it took place 25 years ago, it seems like a hundred.
Since this record came out, South Africa has long since abolished its apartheid policies. Nelson Mandella was released from prison and later became the country's President. As for Simon, who has been elected to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame twice, he continues to explore new ways to express himself through music. Like Steven Van Zandt's Artists United Against Apartheid "Sun City" album, Paul Simon's "Graceland" made you think as well as dance. And yes, it truly made a difference.
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