Sunday 25 February 2018

Graceland: clash of politics and art

Composer: Camargo Guarnieri, who was named Mozart by his father, Miguel
Composer: Camargo Guarnieri, who was named Mozart by his father, Miguel
John Meagher

John Meagher

On the day that Paul Simon released his eagerly awaited album, Graceland - 30 years ago this week - the longest strike in Irish history was entering its third year. In one of the most remarkable domestic stories of the 1980s, a dozen employees of the Dunnes Stores branch on Dublin's Henry Street refused to handle food products from apartheid-riven South Africa and their unpaid protest against the retailer lasted two years and nine months.

By that stage, the Irish Government finally caved in to public pressure by banning the sale of South African goods here - a position that remained until apartheid was eventually lifted in 1992.

Nelson Mandela later told the Dunnes workers that news of their protest had reached his jail cell on Robben Island and it had sustained the future South Africa president during especially difficult periods of his lengthy incarceration.

I mention it because it illustrates just how strongly ordinary people around the world felt about the grave injustices that were then part of life in South Africa. For much of the 1980s, the prevailing mood among liberals was not to engage with the country - so that, for instance, meant rugby teams stopped going there and Western musicians gave the place a wide berth.

There had been a strong campaign throughout the decade from the lobby group Artists Against Apartheid, who urged musicians not to play South Africa. The Sun City resort was known to offer eye-watering sums to induce international names like Rod Stewart and Queen, and it was the subject of the 1985 Stevie Van Zandt song of the same name.

But Paul Simon was not interested in going to South Africa to play conventional shows: he wanted to record a new album there and tap into the astonishingly rich black music of the country that was barely known to the outside world.

It wasn't the first time he had gone off the beaten track, so to speak. In the 1970s, he had recorded music in Jamaica and the reggae tradition island helped inform some of his songs.

But by 1986, Simon was in need of reinvention. He was an industry veteran - at the ripe old age of 45 - having recorded his first song as a 16-year-old in 1957. For much of the intervening three decades, he had worked with Art Garfunkel and the pair had helped shape the sound of the 1960s.

But now, perhaps feeling left behind in the world of MTV, he was up for a completely new challenge. It was hearing a bootleg tape of traditional South African music - boasting the unwieldy title of Gumboots Accordion Jive Vol 2 - that convinced him where his latest sonic direction lay.

At the time, he said he hoped the resulting album would bring such marvellous musicians as Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the outside world, but the canny New Yorker would also have guessed that the new venture could reboot his own career, too. He was aware of the political sensitivities and sought the advice of veteran civil-rights activist Harry Belafonte, who urged him to talk to Mandela's party, the ANC. But it was advice that Simon did not take.

"Personally, I feel I'm with the musicians," he said. "I'm with the artists. I didn't ask the permission of the ANC. I didn't ask permission of Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed. The guys with the guns say, 'This is important', and the guys with guitars don't have a chance."

Such sentiments didn't wash with Artists Against Apartheid, whose most vocal members included Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and the Specials' Jerry Dammers. The latter was especially incensed. "Who does he think he is? He's helping maybe 30 people and he's damaging solidarity over sanctions. He thinks he's helping the cause of freedom, but he's naive. He's doing far more harm than good."

As it turned out, Graceland wasn't entirely recorded in South Africa. Much of it was nailed in Louisiana and the title, of course, refers not to anything Simon discovered on his journey to Africa, but to Elvis's fabled mansion.

But then Graceland was released and there was an outpouring of love for what Simon had done, not least among black South African musicians who had felt forgotten about. One of the country's music exiles, Hugh Masekela, had known Simon since the 1960s heyday of Simon & Garfunkel. He recognised the significance of what Simon had been trying to achieve and he suggested they tour together in a show that would include a host of the country's top black musicians.

"South African music has been in limbo because of apartheid," he said at the time. "Exile and the laws have parted us and caused a lack of growth. If we'd been free and together all these years, who knows what we could have done?"

The gigs were rapturously received, but when the tour reached London's Royal Albert Hall, there were protests outside from Artists Against Apartheid. And the controversy didn't end there. In early 1987, Simon announced that he had been cleared by the ANC, but some party members went public to say that no such 'clearance' had been granted.

A sense of these sensitivities can be gleaned from Joe Berlinger's marvellous 2011 documentary film Under African Skies, which followed Simon on a return visit to South Africa. Twenty-fifth anniversary shows that year passed off without incident and this time, the focus was entirely on the music.

No doubt some Graceland songs will get an airing when Simon plays Dublin's 3Arena on November 21, although his focus then will be on his superb new album, Stranger To Stranger.

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