When Paul Simon began working on his legendary 1986 LP “Graceland,” he didn’t intend to create one of the most influential albums of all time. In fact, he didn’t expect very much to come of it at all.
By the time he began recording the album, Simon had hit rock bottom in both his career and personal life. A few years earlier, he had reunited with his former partner Art Garfunkel for the Concert in Central Park, a well-received performance that drew over 500,000 attendees and produced a popular live album (New York Daily News, 2015). But things soon began to go south and the duo split again when their disagreements marred their performances together (Salon, 2014). On top of that, Simon’s ensuing solo album “Hearts and Bones” flopped and his marriage with actress Carrie Fisher deteriorated, resulting in the pair’s divorce.
In the midst of this personal turmoil, Simon received a cassette tape of bootleg music called “Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II” from his friend Heidi Berg. The music immediately captivated Simon, reminding him of the ʼ50s rhythm and blues that he loved in his youth. He learned that it was in fact mbaqanga, a genre of music popularized in Soweto—the largest and most notorious of apartheid South Africa’s Black townships (New York Times, 1986).
Simon wanted to work with the musicians he heard on the album, but the political climate surrounding the South African government’s racist regime prevented him from doing so. A cultural boycott developed, with most artists refusing to perform in the country. Many anti-apartheid activists called Simon “naïve” for potentially damaging solidarity by recording with South African musicians.
At the same time, however, many praised his work, including some South African musicians and anti-apartheid activists like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba—both of whom subsequently toured with Simon to promote the album. His work with artists such as Ray Phiri and the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo helped bring their music and the “township jive” to a global audience.
The music of Graceland belies the turmoil which inspired its recording. An exuberant and joyous album, “Graceland” combines Simon’s intelligent folk-inspired lyrics with talented featured musicians laying down an exceptional groove.
The album opens with “The Boy in the Bubble,” an upbeat accordion and bass guitar-driven track that sets the tone for the rest of the album. This track diverges from standard American rock music by adding instrumentation like an accordion and South African rhythms. Forere Motloheloa plays the accordion riff, which provides a backbone for the song and establishes the tone and mood of the rest of the album.
The next song is the title track, “Graceland,” the album’s biggest hit, and for good reason. Ray Phiri’s guitar drives the funky rhythm juxtaposed with the lyrics, in which Simon sings about a trip to Graceland, the Memphis mansion of American rock and roll icon Elvis Presley. Lyrics such as “The Mississippi Delta/ Was shining like a National guitar” combined with South African rhythms exemplify the mixture of cultures and styles that characterizes the album.
The fourth track on the album—my favorite—is a song called “Gumboots,” named after the cassette tape that inspired the album. A unique combination of mbaqanga and ’50s-style doo-wop with a killer saxophone solo, it is the most joyful and musically fulfilling of many great songs on “Graceland.”
After “Gumboots” comes “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” an ambitious song that introduces the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and its a cappella vocal style known as “isicathamiya.” After the group sings an intro in Zulu, the song opens to an up-tempo and jazzy melody that listeners can’t help but get up and dance to.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo appears again on the eighth track, “Homeless,” which showcases a more delicate and emotional side to the group. Set to the melody of a Zulu wedding tune with English lyrics, it is as close to traditional South African music as any song on “Graceland.” If “Gumboots” is the album’s happiest song, “Homeless” is its most moving.
The 10th track, “That Was Your Mother,” another of my favorites, brings the listener back to the world of American roots music. A zydeco tune inspired by Louisiana cajun music, it was recorded with local band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters after Simon saw them perform at a club in Lafayette, Louisiana. It is accordion-driven like many of the more South African-inspired songs on the album, and this use of the instrument highlights the similarities between the different styles of music explored on the album.
Overall, “Graceland” takes the listener on a unique sonic journey from the swamps of the Louisiana bayou to the townships of South Africa. For once, Simon’s clever lyrics do not take center stage. Instead, the real stars on the album are the featured musicians. The groove Ray Phiri and bassist Bakithi lay down is second to none and keeps the listener dancing from start to finish.
Simon’s decision to record Graceland at a time of extensive global opposition to the South African regime was certainly risky. The album helped bring the music of many talented Black South Africans to a global audience, though it caused controversy and debate within the anti-apartheid movement. Moreover, it has proven to be one of the most influential and enduring albums of all time, one that will continue to fill me with joy and wonder whenever I listen to it.