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Graceland, the disputed summit of a landmark in World Music

With the release of Gra­ce­land on 26 August 1986, the South Afri­ca of the town­ships under a state of emer­gen­cy, Zulu miners’ hos­tels and the rhythms of Mba­qan­ga and Shan­gaan, the musi­cian Paul Simon flew in through the large win­dow to land in the brand-new CD players of Wes­tern music lovers. Three years ear­lier, on the basis of a South Afri­can cas­sette, the French­wo­man Liz­zy Mer­cier Des­cloux had alrea­dy made the trip to Ego­li, the “City of Gold” as Johan­nes­burg is nick­na­med, to record her album Zulu Rock, crow­ned by the single “Mais où sont pas­sées les gazelles ?”



Accor­ding to her pro­du­cer, Michel Este­ban, Paul Simon had undoub­ted­ly lis­te­ned to this semi­nal record. But the Ame­ri­can sin­ger-song­wri­ter had been sin­ging in ano­ther cate­go­ry since his debut in a duo with Art Gar­fun­kel in the late 1950s : the baby boo­mers. His­to­ry tells us that it was also on lis­te­ning to a South Afri­can cas­sette – the com­pi­la­tion Gum­boots : Accor­dion Jive Hits, Volume 2 (relea­sed by the major South Afri­can label Gal­lo) – that the native of Newark, New Jer­sey was sei­zed by a pas­sion, during the sum­mer of 1985, for these sou­thern Afri­can grooves that were “vague­ly like 50s rock’n’roll out of the Atlan­tic Records school of simple three-chord pop hits : ‘Mr Lee’ by the Bobettes”, and “fami­liar and forei­gn-soun­ding at the same time”, as he explains in the liner notes of the album he would pro­duce himself.

Then aged 44, Paul Simon was at a low point fol­lo­wing the cri­ti­cal and public fai­lure of his album Hearts and Bones, relea­sed in 1983. His ini­tial idea was to record an album of South Afri­can covers based on his “El Condor Pasa”, ins­pi­red by Per­uvian folk­lore. The South Afri­can pro­du­cer Hil­ton Rosen­thal, behind the suc­cess of South Africa’s first inter­ra­cial group Julu­ka (which inclu­ded the sin­ger John­ny Clegg), ins­tead advi­sed Paul Simon to come to Johan­nes­burg to write his album. South Afri­ca was expe­rien­cing the final years of the apar­theid regime. As Paul Simon would later reco­gnise, it was “too bad [the record] was not from Zaire (now the DRC) or Nigeria”.

Since the 1960s, civil rights orga­ni­sa­tions – first­ly in the Uni­ted King­dom and then the Uni­ted States – had been cal­ling for a cultu­ral boy­cott of South Afri­ca. The Uni­ted Nations adop­ted its own reso­lu­tion in Decem­ber 1980. From Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” (1980) to “Free Man­de­la” by Jer­ry Dammers’s Spa­tial AKA Orches­tra (1984), the South Afri­can cause took over the air­waves of the West. In the Uni­ted States, under the aegis of the gui­ta­rist Steve Van Zandt, the “Artists Uni­ted Against Apar­theid” lashed out in “Sun City”  – from the name of a South Afri­can resort loca­ted in the Bophu­thats­wa­na home­land – at their col­leagues hand­so­me­ly paid to per­form in the enclave.




Hee­ding the advice of Quin­cy Jones and Har­ry Bela­fonte, two lea­ding figures in Afri­can-Ame­ri­can civil rights, Simon went to South Afri­ca, but did not agree to meet with offi­cials from the ANC, then an under­ground orga­ni­sa­tion. “I knew I would be cri­ti­ci­sed if I went, even though I wasn’t going to per­form for segre­ga­ted audiences”, he would later explain to the New York Times. “I was fol­lo­wing my musi­cal ins­tincts in wan­ting to work with people whose music I great­ly admired”.

He was on the side of artists rather than poli­ti­cians : during recor­ding ses­sions in Johan­nes­burg, Paul Simon ensu­red that his Afri­can col­leagues were trea­ted on the same foo­ting as the Wes­tern musi­cians. The artist also agreed to share the cre­dits. It was a suf­fi­cient­ly ethi­cal agree­ment that the Union of Black South Afri­can Musi­cians, ini­tial­ly resis­tant to Paul Simon’s arri­val, offi­cial­ly invi­ted him to record in the coun­try. When these ses­sions were trans­fer­red to New York and Lon­don, Paul ensu­red VIP treat­ment for his musi­cians. Ray Phi­ri, the sin­ger and gui­ta­rist from the group Sti­me­la, and Joseph Sha­ba­la­la, the lea­der of Ladys­mith Black Mam­ba­zo, who would go on to have an inter­na­tio­nal career thanks to the recog­ni­tion of Gra­ce­land, would conti­nue to sup­port Paul Simon. That was not the case for all South Afri­can musi­cians, howe­ver. The late trom­bo­nist Jonas Gwang­wa, who then led the group Amand­la, the ANC’s cultu­ral ambas­sa­dor, joked : “So, it has taken ano­ther white man to dis­co­ver my people?”



With 14 mil­lion copies sold since its release, Gra­ce­land became a bench­mark record for what was then cal­led World Music. In Janua­ry 1992, Paul Simon would expe­rience redemp­tion by being the first Wes­tern artist to per­form in post-apar­theid South Afri­ca, posing for immor­ta­li­ty along­side a Nel­son Man­de­la whom he had des­cri­bed only six years ear­lier as “a com­mu­nist”, echoing the offi­cial dis­course of the Ame­ri­can government…


Jean-Christophe Servant

Jean-Christophe Servant


During the 90s, I worked the urban music magazine l'Affiche, I was also the former head of the department of Géo magazine. For thirsty years, I worked mostly for Le Monde Diplomatique about the English-speaking areas of sub-Saharan Africa. I have a particular interest for its cultural industry and its new urban music.

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