Okay, I should confess here that I do not care for Paul Simon very much: I think he’s kind of a dick, and his music is uninteresting. I 95% abhor Simon and Garfunkel; they just do nothing for me, and they soundtracked the awful The Graduate, which they will have to atone for someday (perhaps Art already is). But (as Opifex recently pointed out) there is one album that all ’80s babies know by heart, and that album is Paul Simon’s Graceland.
I’ve mentioned here before the excellent article I Hate World Music by my hero David Byrne, in which he discusses the steep Western bias in the marketing of popular music and the marginalization of artists recording in different languages or on different continents than North America (and Britain). On Graceland, Paul Simon featured a group of incredible vocal artists from South Africa, the luminous Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and in doing so, became one of the first English-language albums to incorporate sounds widely foreign to the average rock-and-pop-raised listener. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, founded by Joseph Shabalala in 1964 following a series of prophetic dreams, is a South African recording group making music called isicathamiya, which Wikipedia tells me is the traditional music of the Zulu people. In 1986, when Graceland was released, there was a cultural boycott against South Africa in protest of its apartheid regime, and many people accused Simon of breaking this boycott in order to make his record. Thankfully, people soon realized what utter bullshit that was, and Graceland went on to win both Record and Album of the Year at the Grammys.
The record helped launch Ladysmith Black Mambazo into international view – including an appearance on Sesame Street where they sang the alphabet, remember that?! – and brought attention to the creative community of black African artists working in South Africa at the time, even if the country’s regime made it difficult to experience that art. Even the little-heard native languages of the country were on display on Graceland. Many lyric passages on Graceland are bilingual, making use of Zulu words as well as English ones – particularly the introduction to the longest track on the album, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.”
And I can say ooh ooh ooh oooh ooh oooh ooh ooh ooh oooooooooooooooooooh. If you were born between 1980 and 1990, this cassette was in your car, and your dad played it until the tape wore out. My brother used to dance in his car seat to this album, flailing his fat little legs around until he fell asleep. The music is made for gettin’ down: nearly all of these songs have beats you can dance to, some more than others, but none better than the trumpeting, synth-heavy “You Can Call Me Al,” which was my special song with my mother when I was a little girl (her name is Betty, my name is… well, you can see where this is going). Remember seeing this video on the TV?
(Incidentally, this is the best thing Chevy Chase has ever done.)
Thematically – is it about being lost, foreign, a traveler? Is that what makes Graceland pair so perfectly with long journeys? Did I pick up on this, even as a small child, as Simon sang on the title track that “the Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar, and I am following the river down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War, going to see Graceland.” The lyrics involve pilgrimages, wanderings, unfamiliar settings: whether it’s the singer himself driving to Elvis’s mansion-turned-mausoleum in “Graceland,” the traveling salesman meeting the love of his life in Lafayette, Louisiana in “That Was Your Mother,” or Fat Charlie the archangel and his fall from grace in “Crazy Love vol. II,” every character on this album is restless and unable to hold still. Everybody’s on the move, whether in the American south or under African skies, and their journeys are the backbone of all these songs. (When I was little and I didn’t know Graceland was a real place, I thought it meant Heaven.)
I probably don’t need to say much more about Graceland – and that’s a wonderful thing, that we all seem to have heard of it, even tangentially. It’s such an important album because it fuses a then-maligned corner of the world – and the great artistic tradition that corner had to offer – with an incredibly successful songwriter/performer as the perfect vehicle. Graceland changed the world of music by showing the public that “world music” was not a niche market; it was something that anybody could groove to and love, without even having to try that hard. When you listen to Graceland, do you separate out the different strands – the Western horns and synths, the isicathamiya rhythms, the zydeco washboards, the American folk – or is it just music?
And finally, because I love it so much, here’s Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing the alphabet.
If that doesn’t make you happy, nothing will. Especially that guy making a G noise.