“…I still think Graceland is one the best ‘world music’ albums ever produced.” We ask some local luminaries to share their thoughts on the classic…
About a month ago I walked into one of those generic CD stores whose name escape one’s memory, and saw the 25th anniversary edition of Paul Simon’s Graceland on a wall. A flood of memories hit me…
When I was around eight, said album, along with Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing and Tracy Chapman’s debut, were on perpetual rotation in our family car, soundtracking our holidays and trips into town and, well, anywhere. I didn’t feel the need to buy the album later on, seeing as it had already imbibed itself into my very bloodstream; but on this day it beckoned.
Re-listening to those familiar songs from the lucid perspective of adulthood is amazing – auditory colours attain detailed textures, vague soundscapes become crisp and defined, the colourful mumbo-jumbo wordplay becomes freshly poetic.
Sparked by Simon’s first encounter with traditional South African music in 1984, via a compilation of Mbaqanga and miners’ songs, entitled Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume 2, Graceland operates as a travelogue, its music shifting from one geography to the next, its palette consisting of and melding several indigenous local musics with Blues, Folk and Cajun Zydeco.
During the course of his trips to SA, Simon gathered together the cream of SA musos, from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to Stimela’s Ray Phiri, and Vusi Khumalo and Bakithi Kumalo, to help fashion the album. Somewhere in its inspired fusion Graceland has a sound unique to its own canvas. Lyrically it glows, drizzled with myth and awe and romance: Fragments like “The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar,” “He sees angels in the architecture/spinning in infinity he says/hey, hallelujah,” “Fat Charlie the archangel sloped into the room,” and “The way we look to a distant constellation/that’s dying in the corner of the sky” lend the album a spiritual resonance and poignancy. The music is irrepressibly bouncy and vibrant, and in its occasional sombre moments it stirs the soul; Bakithi’s subsequently famous bass work winds and pops sinuously throughout, while guitarist Ray Phiri re-imagines American Rock ‘n Roll and Folk. It is perhaps the definitive World music album.
We asked some local luminaries to share their thoughts on the classic:
“Homeless I thought was a bit cheeky and a bit cheesy at first, but if you put aside your cheese and freeloader flags it really is one of the most beautiful songs and sentiments in that style. Graceland was also great but not exactly what I was into at the time. The Boy in the Bubble was the killer track for me – love it – such poetry. I believe his intentions were pure – I don’t believe you can intentionally fuck over people and end up with a music so beautiful, and the artists benefitted by association.”
Guy Buttery (guitarist):
Graceland. Wow. Where do you start? I think it’s safe to say that it’s more than likely the best crossover World Music/Pop record ever made. I recently saw a screening of the Making of Graceland and it shone even more light on something that for me was already totally next level shit. It’s a timeless classic! When in doubt, Graceland. When in even more doubt, Wasteland by our very own Syd Kitchen.”
Cesare Casarino (bassist):
“Bakithi Kumalo absolutely shook my world. The songs and lyrics became part of my life and a reminder that we could as musicians break through the Boerewors curtain. At that time we experienced economic and cultural sanctions on various levels. This gave us a sense of being detached from the rest of humanity. Paul Simon validated us by bringing our traditional, African music into the limelight.”
Pops Mohamed (multi-instrumentalist):
“In short I would like to say that I still think Graceland is one the best ‘world music’ albums ever produced. I always listen to that CD when I’m feeling down. It sort of brings me back to normal again. Great album and it still needs to be challenged, but ‘nada’!”