I’m delighted to see that Paul Simon will be reviving his Graceland album music at a concert in London during 2012. The report by The Guardian describes how Paul broke the UN cultural embargo to make the album in South Africa, and what a storm it caused at the time, but I think the album did far more good than damage in the long run.
I was a teenager growing up in Apartheid South Africa when the album was released and I remember that my father eagerly bought the cassette and almost wore it out playing it in our car journey’s to church every week (church being St Georges Cathedral where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was enthroned not long after Graceland came out). Daddy had very wide musical tastes, he adored music from Gabrielli to Dire Straits, Bach to the Beatles, and this incredible new blend of Western and African music had him, and us enthralled. Although I had heard African music many times as a child (including the Government supported show ‘Ipi Tombi’, a sanitised story of black existence), this was the first time I really started to appreciate the complexities and sheer joy of the rhythms and harmonies of indigenous South African music. Apartheid education had tried to separate musical cultures, so that white Afrikaans and English children were led to believe that African music was inferior in every way compared with Western music. Graceland made an immense step towards changing all that – it was everywhere and we could not longer be ‘protected’ from the sound and the feelings and interests it aroused.
Although the White South African government might have thought at the time that they had one up on the rest of the world regarding Paul’s naive trip to record in South Africa, it infiltrated places they might never have expected and started to help change attitudes in the white community with far reaching consequences. Paul’s collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Gaza sisters and others helped many people start to appreciate the creative and cultural possibilities of white and black collaboration and shone a light on just how irrational and immoral the apartheid regime really was – it is a stunning example of just how important Music and Art is to humankind.