December is here. Time for musical goodwill and cheer.
The holiday season is upon us. A time to reflect and be positive (in theory). It is appropriate to show comradery with our fellow travelers on spaceship Earth (again in theory). With this in mind as we go through our stack’o’wax in the back, The Public Records felt it appropriate to make this December an international one. We have a decent pile of albums from Europe, Africa, and the Hispanophone world that we would like to share with you throughout the month. We also happen to have the perfect album to kick off our international set.
In 1986 after commercial and personal failures, American artist Paul Simon traveled to South Africa despite the cultural boycott to record with local musicians whose music was suppressed by the local authorities due to apartheid. Needless to this would lead to controversy – but let’s backtrack a bit:
A few years before, everything was going swimmingly for Simon, who was enjoyinb a happy marriage to actress Carrie Fisher and it seemed he was patching things up with his former partner, Art Garfunkel when their ‘Concert In Central Park‘ garnered the second largest live audience in history. However, he and Garfunkel couldn’t keep it together on their reunion tour and he and Fisher couldn’t keep it together at home. All of sudden his new albums weren’t selling and a divorce was underway. Simon’s world was falling apart; however, that all changed when a musician he was producing lent him a bootleg cassette called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, vol. II.
Simon immediately became fascinated with it. It was immediately familiar and alien to him at the same time. After some research, he was able to find out that tape was either by the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the Boyoyo Boys, both black South African groups from the producer Hilton Rosenthal, himself from Johannesburg.
While both excited and dismayed about where the music hailed from, Simon ultimately decided that he would track down and record the artists from the tape and other locals from South Africa, Lesotho, and Senegal as well as a variety of musicians from around America to combine the genres of zydeco, mbaqanga, isicathamiya, pop, rock, a cappella, and more. He quietly flew to South Africa and secretly recorded with the local musicians and saw the horrors of apartheid up close. He then returned home and flew many of those artists to New York to complete recording there. He also worked with US based bands including Los Lobos, Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters, Linda Ronstadt, and The Everly Brothers.
Of course this generated outrage amongst western artists who were culturally boycotting South Africa. However, in South Africa proper, the black musicians union voted in favor of him coming and recording as this would be beneficial to getting them access to the international market and give the world access to their music and culture. Non South African firebrands like English musician Billy Bragg felt he was a traitor, but in South Africa he was greeted warmly by the musicians themselves.
Simon received flak from everywhere in the political world – from the African National Congress, from the South African government, from western musicians, but most surprisingly (however unsurprisingly) very few actual black South African musicians.
In fact he received much praise from those he recorded with and those he didn’t for simply treating them like people. Music should be apolitical even if it is political (in theory) and Paul Simon’s Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986) shows us just how it’s done.
Drink whatever you want with this one.