“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” ~President John F. Kennedy
Twenty-five years after the release of Paul Simon's Graceland album, the singer-songwriter returned to South Africa to visit the musicians who worked with him on what many believe is his musical masterpiece. A new documentary film, Under African Skies, which premieres tonite (Friday, May 25) on A&E, chronicles Simon's journey and the role that music — and artists — may have played in bringing about the end of apartheid.
This masterful film, which debuted earlier this year to wide acclaim at the Sundance film festival, makes a convincing argument for the important role that artists play in changing the world for the better.
It began with the music. Full stop.
Back in the early '80s, someone gave Simon a cassette tape of instrumental songs by the South African group the Boyoyo Boys. After a few weeks of listening to it on repeat, Simon says he wasn’t interested in listening to anything else.
Simon contacted a music producer in South Africa to ask about the possibility of traveling to Johannesburg to record a track with the Boyoyo boys. He’s written some lyrics, wasn’t sure what he’d do with song, but just had to record it.
Seems simple enough, but remember, this was 1985. Nelson Mandela still was in prison (on year 22 of his sentence and more than five years away from his eventual release.) Apartheid struggles and extreme racial tensions in South Africa had reached a vicious zenith. And there also was a cultural boycott in place. Artists — no matter how famous or big-hearted they might be — were supposed to stay away from the country.
Larry Waronker, then the president of Simon’s record label, Warner Brothers, told him, “You can do that here. You don’t have to go there.”
“No,” Simon said. “I’m going down there.”
Simon reached out to his longtime friend, the musician/actor and Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte for advice. Belafonte told Simon that he should get in contact with the African National Congress and its president, Oliver Tambo, to let them know of his intentions so they could make introductions and arrange the necessary passes in country.
“I saw right then and there that Paul resisted,” Belafonte recalls in the film. “The power of art and the voice of the artist was supreme and to go to any one group … to beg the right of passage was against his instinct.”
Simon concurs. “It was an adventure that was irresistible to me,” he says. “I didn’t tell Harry, which I probably should have done. But it’s like your dad when he says, ‘Don’t take the car,’ but you have a date that you really want to go on so you take the car anyway.’”
Off Simon went to South Africa, where he spent about two weeks in Johannesburg recording mostly instrumental music with the Boyoyo Boys, General Shirinda and the Gaza sisters and a number of other celebrated South African artists who were little-known outside the continent. Inside the studio, there were no palpable racial tensions. There was neither black nor white — just musicians trading melodies and riffs, jamming. As the album bears out, it was magic.
But as soon as Simon landed in South Africa he was struck by the extreme racial tension, unprepared for “what it felt like in the air.” Backlash from the ANC and African freedom movement greeted him as well. The African media lambasted him for breaking the cultural boycott. One of the loudest voices of criticism came from Dali Tambo, head of Artists Against Apartheid and the son of the ANC president.
At a press conference at the time, a reporter mentions the cultural boycott and asks, “What made you go there?”
“I was invited there,” Simon answers. “I was invited by black musicians.”
In conversation with the music mogul Quincy Jones in the documentary, Simon continues, “When the artist gets into some sort of disagreement with politics, why are the politicians designated to be the ones to tell us — the artists — what to do? And we're supposed to follow otherwise we're not good citizens?"
"Music is the most unifying thing I've ever seen," Jones says. "There are only 12 notes , man….Until God gives us 13 we all got the same materials to work with…That's what music is, it's the voice of God, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I do," Simon says.
One of the most powerful story lines in Under African Skies, which is a extraordinary film in every way — narratively, visually, historically, musically — comes from Simon’s visit, 25 years later, with Dali Tambo in his home in Johannesburg. The two men sit on a couch and talk about what had transpired a quarter-century earlier.
“We formed Artists Against Apartheid to enforce this cultural boycott,” Tambo began. “If you go there you become part of apartheid’s attempt to secure international legitimacy and pull itsef out of the sanctions that were gripping the country. So when you came to South Africa, it wasn’t the ideal form of cultural exchange. … They weren’t free people, Paul.”
Simon pushed back: “Then why did they say come? I treated them as equals. They treated me as equals. We treated each other as musicians. We didn’t have anything to do with color, race. It was purely music and it wasn’t lost on any of them, because here I come back 25 years later and those people are my very dear friends.”
The meeting is a one-on-one version of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The two men meet with open minds, tell their stories, ask for forgiveness and do, in fact, reconcile.
Joseph Shabalala, founder and leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African acapella group featured on the album that Simon introduced to the American audience via a now famous performance on Saturday Night Live well before Graceland ever hit record shops, calls Simon “brother.”
“He just come to me like a baby, like, ‘Father, can you teach me something?’ And we hug. That was my first time to hug … a white man,” Shabalala recalls in the film. “When we started working together, we didn’t see black or white… He’s my brother.”
Graceland won numerous awards, including a Grammy for record of the year, and has gone on to become one of the most enduring albums in American music. Musically it did things that hadn’t been done before in popular genres, mixing traditional African tunes, sounds and rhythms, sampling bits from disparate cultures — a legacy to which hip-hop and much of today’s popular music owes its birth.
But the celebrated album is much more than the sum of its parts. For many of us, Graceland — rightly or wrongly — planted seeds of the beauty and joyful strength of Africa in our imaginations for the first time, which led more than a few of us to dig deeper into issues of injustice there and raise our voices on behalf of our African brothers and sisters.
Oprah Winfrey, who appears in the film along with the Sir Paul McCartney, Philip Glass, Peter Gabriel and a number of luminaries, says Graceland is her favorite album of all time. (Her # 2 is Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.)
“There was all of this music that had so much vibrancy and life and excitement and rhythm and everything,” Winfrey says. “It just opened up a space inside of you.
“For myself, my deep and now abiding interest in South Africa was stirred by first listening to Graceland,” she says.
At the heart of Under African Skies is Simon himself — now 70 and with more than 50 years as a professional musician under his belt — his heart and soul are deeply curious. He wants to understand. Himself. The world around him. The power of music. War and peace. Harmony, disharmony and melody. Spirit, faith and the creative process.
It’s utterly fascinating and terribly compelling (I was moved to tears more than once watching the film with my family) to travel back to South Africa — literally and figuratively — with Simon on his unexpected journey of spiritual discovery.
“This is a film that doesn’t smash a particular point of view over the audience’s head – and I think it is interesting that Paul Simon allowed that kind of film to be made," the director Joe Berlinger said. "Some people might walk away feeling Paul made the wrong decision 25 years ago, while I think many others might come away feeling it was more complex – that it was worth the controversy to have musicians from opposite worlds finally able to share, as Paul says, ‘the deep truth that artists speak.’ Either way, what is remarkable is that apartheid now lies in the past, yet the music lives on as a great achievement. The power of the music is that it is still bringing people together."
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Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners.