These days Paul Simon enjoys music from Mali, which he discovered two years ago in his continual lookout for new sounds. Twenty-five years ago, it was music from South Africa that caught the attention of the singer-songwriter, who reached international acclaim with his 1986 solo album, Graceland, the most commercially successful of his career.
The album, which integrated South African music styles like isicathamiya and mbaqanga with elements of good old American rock and pop, was received with both praise and protest. Critics loved it, but others thought the choice to record the album in apartheid South Africa breached the UN’s cultural boycott on the country.
Still, the music prevailed. The album proved to be an immediate hit, reaching the tops of charts all over the world, selling 14 million copies worldwide, and earning two Grammys, including Album of the Year in 1986 and Record of the Year in 1987, with the title song.
This year, Paul Simon released a 25th anniversary album edition of Graceland in a boxed set that includes Joe Berlinger’s Emmy-nominated documentary, “Under African Skies,” which follows Simon’s 2011 return to South Africa, from which the original story of Graceland’s making unfolds.
In honor of this special occasion, National Geographic’s Pop Omnivore spoke with Paul Simon about what has changed in the quarter of a century since he first set foot Under those African Skies. And of course, we couldn’t help but ask his opinion on the South Korean horse-dancing rapper.
-by Rena Silverman
You first thought of creating Graceland in your car, after driving around to a cassette of South African music. How did one thing lead to another?
There was a group called the Boyoyo Boys who made an album of accordion music, “Township Jives” and that’s what I was listening to. It was instrumental music with an accordion, electric guitar, bass, and drums. It reminded me of a certain kind of fifties rock ‘n’ roll. It was a couple of months before it dawned on me that this was something I liked so much that I could write to it. I had just been listening to it for fun, but then I become obsessed with it.
You have a history of discovering and collaborating with musicians from different parts of the world. Graceland and The Capeman are only a few examples. How far back does your interest in different cultures go?
It goes back to before Graceland, to the first music I was interested in, which is early rock ‘n’ roll. Without really understanding because I was just 12 or 13 years old, this kind of music that I liked came from a combination of different cultures. It was African American cultures, like doo-wop singing, which comes from gospel singing. It was Louisiana rhythms. I liked the Ethel Waters and that kind of Appalachian, Celtic tradition and Johnny Cash, which also has country roots. And Elvis Presley is both: the combination of Anglo-Saxon and African American. So, I grew up in an environment like that and when I was with Simon & Garfunkel, we recorded “El Cóndor Pasa” , a very famous song from Peru, hundreds of years old. We recorded that song with a group called Los Incas [known currently as Urubamba].
And then I went to Jamaica to record “Mother and Child Reunion” , so I’ve been interested in pursuing music that I like regardless of where it comes from. I learned pretty early on if you want to get the music right you should probably travel to where it’s being played as opposed to asking musicians who are not familiar with it to copy it.
But, once you hear something that you like does it mean you can play it?
When I first realized that I was free to go to any place that I wanted, I didn’t really think about how well I could play and there were times when I didn’t think I played very well. Like, “Gone at Last” , an up-tempo gospel song and I just don’t think I’m good at up-tempo gospel singing. I was better with gospel quartettes, something like “Loves Me Like a Rock” . So, just because I like something doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to play it well or even necessarily understand it. I never really had a deep grasp of Latin music and clave [a five-stroke rhythmic pattern used in many famous Afro-Cuban genres, including rumba, mambo, salsa, Latin jazz, and more] and so in The Capeman I had a lot of help from band members and singers like Rubén Blades and Marc Anthony.
When you first got to South Africa, was the music a challenge?
It was difficult to play. No, it was difficult to play well, and to play it as well as South Africans play it. To play that guitar style and to play it well takes a long time. Even though the chords are relatively simple, it’s about how you play those chords. It’s about touch, like Johnny Cash’s music—boom-chick-boom-chick-boom—sounds easy, but only Johnny Cash could make that stuff swing. And everybody else who tries, well they just sound like an imitation of Johnny Cash.
The music in South Africa was not difficult to write [lyrics and melody], but what I was writing was a hybrid and was not purely South African. It was American and South African.
You recorded the tracks then did the writing?
That’s right. I start with the structure.
There was a lot going on in South Africa at the time of your arrival in the mid-eighties, like apartheid. You were accused of breaking the United Nation’s cultural boycott of the country at one point. Did you see that coming given you just wanted to learn about the music? Were you surprised?
They didn’t really say that while I was there or before the record was released. After the record was a hit, then there were some people who were saying that. And I never would have guessed that scenario was going to be our reality when I began recording in the months before the record came out. Other people knew that there were political implications. But, it was sort of kept from me, as you see in the documentary. My producer Koloi [Lebona] didn’t want me to be intimidated by anyone’s objections, so he kept the objections from me.
Once released, Graceland was an international hit, climbing the charts in the UK, Australia, the Netherlands, and Austria. Are you ever surprised by where your music is received?
I’ll tell you a story that’s good for National Geographic. I was on a trip in the Amazon in the eighties, before Graceland, maybe in the middle eighties. And we stopped in this very small village, really completely away from anything. It was so small it didn’t really have roads in it. And we were walking through the village and a girl was sitting in a hut playing a nylon string guitar. We listened for a while and I said to her, I know a song from Peru. We were that far on the Amazon. I played “El Cóndor Pasa,” and she knew that song and then she said, I know a song from America and she played “The Sound of Silence.”
Wow. That’s pretty good
Yeah! That is good. So, there are times when I’ve been surprised.
Did you tell her who you were?
No. She had found the song in a book. Somebody had given her a book of mine or a book of a bunch of songs that were popular, probably a bunch of songs that were popular. I mean it was not easy to understand each other. We sort of communicated by picking up the guitar. But, it didn’t matter who I was. The situation just struck me as a really rare coincidence. In the middle of the Amazon, to find that your songs have gotten that far.
Have you heard about Psy, the Korean rapper on YouTube?
Yeah! He’s the guy who dances that kind of horse dance, right? Yes. Now it’s a different story with YouTube and the Internet although I doubt the internet has gotten that far into the Amazon.
We don’t really hear pop music from China.
But, you just saw a Korean rapper. There’s censorship in China, so there’s less that we see, but undoubtedly stuff will come from China that we will see.
Graceland was released well before the Internet. I’m curious about your earlier point about writing a hybrid. The rhythms in the album are South African, while the melodies, themes, and subjects seem more American, like the name of the title song, which refers to Elvis’ home in Tennessee. What was the impact of merging these very different worlds?
What was unusual about Graceland is that it was on the surface apolitical, but what it represented was the essence of the antiapartheid in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed. It was completely the opposite from what the apartheid regime said, which is that one group of people were inferior. Here, there were no inferiors or superiors, just an acknowledgement of everybody’s work as a musician. It was a powerful statement. We were able to accomplish that symbolically because music is so accessible and people liked it. And the political implications came later than they would have if the songs had been overtly political. And in that way Graceland was a different and slyer kind of political view.
Graceland was also making a relatively new musical music statement, though it wasn’t the first the world music attempt by any means. Graceland was the first to become an example of a hybrid that was mainstream popular . Something like [the Russian feminist punk-rock collective] Pussy Riot is overtly political. Because we’re in an Internet world now, everyone knows about them. And the spotlight is shown on the Russian judicial system. But, it’s not that people are evaluating what they did musically.
Do you see anything happening more like Graceland now, globalization or introduction to cultures from the music itself?
Yes. I think what’s going on around the world with rap in different languages says something. In the Arab world there are rappers who are talking about political subjects. In authoritarian societies, music has long played a role of being a component of the political process. I’m sure there are more, but I don’t know enough about the musicians to tell you what I think.
Have you seen the movie Searching for Sugar Man?
No, but everybody keeps asking me that. Does it have something to do with me, or something I’m interested in?
It’s about a musician, apartheid, South Africa, Detroit, the ‘70s.
I better see it.
Have you discovered more music lately from different parts of the world?
Two years ago, I started to get into a lot of music from Mali [music in Mali has been influenced by several strong musical roots, including the ancient Mande empire, local ethnic rhythms, and Moorish-European form]. And now I wonder what is going on because there is a revolution in Mali. But, I listen to music from everywhere. Electronic music is interesting to me now, or new instruments. I’m just interested in new ways of expanding sound, making sound, finding things that appeal to me in a sound. Music is just sound. When I hear a sound that I like, I incorporate it into the music.
I’ll record a field just to give a track air, you know with birds and things, you can hardly hear it, but I’m always fooling around with sounds and overtones.
The earth always hums.
Yes. And, there’s space, too. NASA has done recordings of sounds in space. That’s very interesting to me, too.
This spring, you released the 25th anniversary edition of Graceland. Once again, it climbed the charts in the UK. You went on tour in honor of the anniversary. How was performing?
That was fun. We played some concerts in Europe. It took a little practice to get back to where we were, but we got there. I liked it a lot. We were able to have all the original musicians. It was nostalgic and it was fun.