The ’80s were fraught with paradox. On one hand, it’s known as the ‘me decade,’ with `yuppies’ dotting the landscape, in search of big money and material wealth. No gadget was unattainable and the one who died with the most `toys’ was thought to have `won.’ Then again, there was a huge wave of altruism, beginning with Bob Geldof’s Band / Live Aid ventures, then spawning into USA for Africa, Comic Relief and a host of other charitable organizations and events. Which was the real face of the ’80s? The answer is somehow both, dichotomous as it may seem. Peter Gabriel both championed the music of Africa and lampooned the selfishness of the decade in his 1986 album, So. So too did his American somewhat counterpart, Paul Simon. In Simon’s album, Graceland, the music of Africa takes center stage, providing both juxtaposition and enhancement of Simon’s folk-pop underpinnings.
While Gabriel made his name with prog group Genesis, Paul Simon had finished with his starmaking duo with Art Garfunkel. As principal songwriter, Simon had no trouble reaching success in a solo career. But it wasn’t until 1985, the same year he took part in the USA for Africa project, that Simon became aware of African music. Given an album called Gumboots, Simon was introduced to the street music of South Africa. Further exploration led him to various other African rhythms, bands and styles, inspiring him in a way he had never been before. Using these acts, particularly Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Youssou N’Dour, and the Boyoyo Boys Band, among others, Simon created Graceland, a world pop album that both entertained and educated.
Graceland was mostly known for its four hit singles. “The Boy in the Bubble” featured the `gumboots’ style of accordion and bass from South Africa with which Simon had become entranced. His lyrics spoke of the dichotomies of modern times, with images of terrorism and medical technologies. The title track spoke of Elvis’ home as some kind of new Promised Land, a place to heal from a broken heart and marriage. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” features an a cappella Zulu language opening from Ladysmith Black Mambazo before Simon joins in with his English language counterpart. That then leads into the second part with full instrumentation. This song fully illustrates Simon’s fascination with the music of Africa, a sound that he originally felt was similar to ’50s Rock and Roll music, Atlantic Records pop and Motown soul. The horn parts add that kind of soul and rhythm and blues flourishes to a tribal beat. The same can be said of one of the biggest hits from the album, “You Can Call Me Al,” helped to stardom by a video featuring Chevy Chase lipsynching to the song while Simon is constantly nudged out of frame.
Together with So, released in the same year, and the various charitable organizations devoted to raising awareness of African hunger, strife and inhumane conditions, Graceland brought Africa to the forefront of American consciousness. But Graceland wasn’t just about raising awareness, it was and still remains one of the best examples of musical fusion that exists. It would also be another ten years until Simon would rival the genius of Graceland by combining his whip-smart pop sensibility with the svengali masterminding of Brian Eno on Surprise. Graceland is one of those albums of the ’80s, just after Thriller, Like a Virgin, Purple Rain, and Born in the USA should be in everyone’s collection.
Paul Simon- The Rhythm of the Saints
Peter Gabriel- So
Ladysmith Black Mambazo- Ulwandle Oluncgwele