Sunday 18 February 2018

Once upon a time in South Africa

Breakthrough: the late Miriam
Makeba and Paul Simon
Breakthrough: the late Miriam Makeba and Paul Simon

There was an extraordinary moment in Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger's brilliant documentary on the making of Paul Simon's Graceland album, which was screened in Dublin's Lighthouse Cinema last week and shown on TV last Tuesday night.

The story concerned one of the black musicians then living under the oppressive apartheid regime of mid-80s South Africa whom Simon had invited over to New York for a recording session. Finding himself in Manhattan for the first time, the guitarist asked his host where he needed to go to get a pass from the authorities to visit Central Park.

The musician who had seemingly never left the Johannesburg township where he grew up was reportedly dumbstruck when he was told that he was free to walk wherever and whenever he liked in the Big Apple.

It was an anecdote that illustrated the vileness of apartheid as well as making us realise that the freedoms we enjoy in the West should never be taken for granted.

The messy intersection of art and politics was at the crux of the film, which explored with admirable frankness the veritable shitstorm that surrounded Simon's decision to travel to South Africa to work with local artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his Graceland album.

Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the late African National Congress president Oliver Tambo, was at the time living in exile in London. He led the attacks on Simon when the multimillion-selling, Grammy-winning record came out in 1986. We are shown footage of angry public meetings where the feted singer/songwriter is denounced for breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa.

However, Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter who played with Simon on the original Graceland tour, was equally livid that impoverished local musicians should be denied the chance to have their music heard on a global stage -- and to make a few quid in the process.

We then fast forward to 2012 and Simon and Dali Tambo are rehashing the argument on a plush sofa. Each presents his case respectfully, with Simon defending his right to collaborate without borders.

It seems to me that while he may have technically broken the terms of the cultural boycott, he didn't break it in spirit, as the boycott was largely in place to stop Western artists playing to rich white South Africans in segregated valhallas like Sun City (to their eternal shame, the likes of Queen and Elton John took the 30 pieces of silver). Was it really meant to stop Western artists from popularising and enriching unsung local black musicians?

Ultimately, Simon's heart was in the right place -- he gave co-writing credits to many of his collaborators and retained some of the musicians in his touring band to this day. What's more, the impact that Graceland had on the future direction of pop music and on popular culture in general is incalculable.

It opened the world's ears to the bright shining national guitars and irresistible polyrhythms of African music.

In no time, the trend was for Western artists and audiences to beat a path to 'world music' all over the globe -- so that now no one blinks an eye when the floppy-fringed leader of an indie guitar band from Colchester is collaborating with a desert blues combo from Mali on the Pyramid stage of Glastonbury.

Would a band like the great Vampire Weekend exist without Graceland? Probably not.

The documentary ends on an uplifting note as Simon and the musicians who helped mould his masterpiece reunite on a Johannesburg stage -- the nearest the original world tour got to their native South Africa was a show in a football stadium in neighbouring Zimbabwe. This time around, Simon was returning to a country where the black citizens could walk freely to the nearest park, no permit required, and where their own football stadiums had hosted the 2010 World Cup.

It goes without saying that the 25th anniversary tour of Graceland promises to be something special. Simon, now a septuagenarian, played an unforgettable show last year in Vicar Street, proving that he's up there with Leonard Cohen in the old-codgers-who've-still-got-the-magic stakes. The prospect of seeing him and his amazing band play the whole of Graceland from start to finish in The O2 stirs the soul.

It's some journey, from the Mississippi Delta to the townships of South Africa to the docklands of Dublin . . .

Paul Simon plays The O2, Dublin, on Thursday July 12 and Friday July 13. Under African Skies is out now on DVD and also is part of the Graceland anniversary box set on Sony.

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