At 90 minutes a satisfyingly lengthy documentary marking 25 years of Graceland as Paul Simon returned to Joburg for a celebratory reunion performance with the original line-up. Pretty much everything was covered. What a great musical fusion it was, how great it was live , with footage from the in exile Zimbabwe show with Miriam Makeba etc and the fantastic performance on Late night Live before the album came out , making it a revelation to everyone. They cut between rehearsals last year and for the original recording, fascinating to see the players in their youth, and of course this fell at only the halfway point in Simon's career (as it now is) Simon is clearly very single-minded and stubborn. There was a lot of discussion around his breaking the cultural boycott, ignoring Harry Belafonte's advice to run the idea past the ANC. His position was that an artist should be free to collaborate with other artists and not kowtow to politicians' instructions as they are so often expected to do because somehow artists are way down the hierarchy below politicians , activists, lawmakers and even the media. He went head to head with Oliver Tambo's son - what a glorious speaking voice, like an actor's , clearly rounded by his years at Oxford or wherever it was- who had founded Artists against Apartheid and argued how unhelpful , to say the least, the idea of Graceland was at a time when Apartheid was being so brutally enforced. They agreed on mutual respect in the end and Simon apologised for any inadvertent affrontery he may have caused. I'm not a political person and thought at the time that Simon had not just made a great record but had launched international careers for all the South Africans. He shared the royalties too. Certainly those musicians thought so and were nothing but 100% with Simon. So the politicians all came across as stuck in time and now out-manoeuvred, the ANC as almost repressive in their refusal to allow artistic expression. Ray Phiri was still angry at being told what he could and could not do outside of South Africa by the likes of the protesters outside the Albert Hall gig. How dare they punish someone a second time after they have already been so punished at home. A rare situation where liberals go head to head with liberals! Simon and the musicians won the day and the argument
I haven't seen the documentary yet, I'll try to. I'm a fan of Paul Simon's music, generally speaking, and of "Graceland" in particular. However, I think his attitude towards the contributions that other musicians make to his work leaves something to be desired. This interview with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos tells the story pretty effectively I think:
It's such a shame. That Los Lobos story has been around for a long while and it does have the ring of truth about it. I so want to like Simon. He's written a handful of beautiful, brilliant songs. But it seems he's just not a very honest or pleasant human being. Lou Reed springs to mind.
After 90 minutes of Imagine: Paul Simon's Graceland (BBC1), I feel no warmer to the man who broke a UN cultural boycott to record with South Africa's leading musicians during apartheid. True, Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, David Byrne, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte here championed Simon's collaboration 25 years ago. Yes, the South African artists who played on the resulting iconic album admired him. But still, his disrespect to the black men and women of the ANC and Artists Against Apartheid rankles.
Simon was all over the place in accounting for himself – at one point claiming not to have understood what was going on in South Africa (then he should have found out), at another claiming he had railed against ANC leaders for wanting to curb his freedom (they didn't: desperate times – and little is more desperate than apartheid – called for desperate measures).
This poised documentary posed difficult questions for defenders of cultural boycott about creative freedom, and for flouters like Simon, about political responsibility. Better, it gave the chance to hear unsullied the South African music that thrilled Simon 25 years ago. How lovely to hear, for instance, accordionist Forere Motloheloa laying down a groove without Paul Simon singing over it. If only it had remained the music Simon loved, rather than the music he, having loved, used.
The Guardian review just reads like a rehash of all of the negative stuff that Graceland received on its release. At the time I bought what I thought was a great record and it lead me to explore South African music and consequently become more aware of the political situation in that country. Sure Simon was naive at best, calculating at worst but for me without those recordings would Ladysmith Black Mambazo still be selling out concert tours and I certainly would not have been buying some of those Sterns compilations.
Means and ends. Undoubtedly, many people were turned on to African music by that record. Many people were turned on to the blues by Led Zeppelin and co's heavy handed thefts in the late 60s. Many American teenagers were turned on to reggae by Sting's laughable Bob Marley impersonations with The Police. Cultural imperialism. Is it worth it?
Yesterday John Mayall singing "Parchman Farm" came up on my iTunes (the shuffle can be so interesting!) as this earnest Mancunian sang "I'm loading cotton in a twelve foot sack, twelve guage shotgun at my back", I had to laugh. But... It made me think of the culture those lyrics came from (surely as repressive and inhumane as Arpartheid? Shall we argue degrees of evil?) and I think that's a good thing.
Stuart Jeffries doesn't know much about music does he? Composers have been stealing, lifting and adapting existing music since Haydn and probably forever. It's absurd to hark back to the original Boyoyo Boys or whoever else Simon was inspired by. What he did in creating Graceland simply wouldn't have happened without him. If anyone thinks that is an easy thing to do - just cynically set out to steal someone else's music , and plonk some lyrics on top , hey presto, has no idea what's involved. You might as well dismiss Picasso and another million artists and go back to cave painting as where it's at . Absurd
Yes, but I don't think that's really what we're discussing, David. Nobody would dispute that. I think what's under discussion here, certainly with regard to the Los Lobos example, is Simon's decidedly First World attitude to copyright and subsequent royalty payments.
As Charles Shaar Murray once remarked about Led Zeppelin's cover of Memphis Minnie's "When The Levee Breaks" (which is a great record, by the way): "What's a few hundred thousand dollars between friends?"
Well Paul Simon could be lying through his teeth of course and never shared royalties. But on Graceland credits are shared on the music. The Los Lobos interview above seems remarkably vague given that a load of money is at stake. No particular song identified, or is it Boy in the Bubble ? which seems to be explained otherwise in the film, or some zydeco song ( by LA Mexicans ?!). That interview is unconvincing in its vagueness. Simon may be unpleasant - for what it's worth I would guess he is a lonely and sad person - but that doesn't lessen the achievement We've been over that old chestnut before of whether you have to like an artist personally to like the output
I'm sorry David, but that is plain wrong. In the interview, Steve Berlin is clearly referring to the song "All Around The World or The Myth of Fingerprints". You only have to read the interview and check the album to figure that out.
It seems to me that there is a very specific case there, where Simon's approach is, at the very least, open to question. That specific question, for me, remains unanswered - and I have been aware of the story for a number of years; if Simon has ever made any effective rebuttal, then I've missed it. If you can point to any evidence to the contrary, I would be keen to hear it.
Having now watched the documentary, my conclusion is, in respect of the South African cultural boycott, that Simon should have taken the advice proffered and consulted with the ANC before his initial visit to South Africa. Having said that, the scene near the end - in which Simon reaches some degree of accord with Dali Tambo - seems to have been stage-managed to come across as an act of closure; after all these years, I don't have a problem with that.
You're right Rob, it doesn't look good. They were vague on the subject only in as much as I hadn't read it properly. I'd not remembered there having been a song called the Myth of Fingerprints. And Simon does take the credits for both words and music on that one. But the South Africans in the film do all seemed genuine in their solidarity with Simon, more than just being pleased with a big payday Who knows what really happened? There are so many cases where a band member or hired hand comes up wih the key riff or line but doesn't get the credit. Even in the film it's explicit that guitarist Ray Phiri provided the riff on You can call me Al which drives the song. 'Words and music by Simon'. Murky waters
Detracting from the Paul Simon conversation for a few minutes, here's another American folkie who recorded in Africa a dozen or so years before Paul Simon. Phil Ochs was working in Kenya in 1973, and cut one single with local musicians, The Pan African Ngembo Rumba Band. Ochs performed as a member of the group, rather than having them as accompanists, and also sang in Swahili as well as English.
If Simon had used the enormous success of "Graceland" as a platform upon which to unequivocably denounce Apartheid in the strongest possible terms he would have been hailed as a hero. He might have got whacked but he would have been hailed as a hero.
By the way, much as I enjoyed the record, it is a little bit like neurotic Woody Allen movie dialogue superimposed (very tastefully and expertly) on top of some of the strongest and supplest music in the world. Maybe the problem is right there. Anyway... Thanks for the Phil Ochs, Norm. Irony of ironies, that first tune sounds a bit like "Sound Of Silence". hahahahah!
Playing the stadium in Zimbabwe , as near as they could get, with Miriam Makeba on stage and collectively singing the banned anthem Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, was a fairly clear and public denunciation wasn't it? In the film he does salute the song Biko as a great song which he himself has recorded, but explained he is not that kind of explicit political writer. I would regard those sportsmen who broke the boycott to play Sun City for purely personal gain, the cricketers , golfers and musicians, as far more guilty than Simon and his arrogant ways. Didn't Queen go there? Why are they not vilified?