Few albums have had humbler beginnings, been as musically adventurous, generated as much political controversy or been as warmly received by the public as Paul Simon's Graceland. Released in 1986, Graceland matched Simon with a host of African artists — including guitarist Ray Phiri and his band, Stimela, and the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The album's scintillating blend of lively beats and thoughtful lyrics, as well as its seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic, restored Simon's career and brought African music, and particularly South African music, to a broader international audience.
The journey to Graceland began with an unlabeled cassette tape that guitarist Heidi Berg gave to Simon, who listened to it incessantly, without knowing what it was, throughout the summer of 1984. Simon's curiosity eventually got the better of him, and he discovered that the album on the tape was called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II and had been recorded by the Boyoyo Boys, a group from South Africa.
The kind of music on Gumboots is mbaqanga, or "township jive," the street music of Soweto, South Africa, but for Simon the album called to mind music that was closer to home. "It sounded like very early rock & roll to me — black, urban, mid-Fifties rock & roll, like the great Atlantic tracks from that period," Simon told Rolling Stone after the album's release. "The rhythm was a fairly uptempo, 2/4 feel with a strange accordion in there. But the way they play the accordion, it sounds like a big reed instrument. It could almost be a sax."
The music, which seemed to Simon both fresh and reminiscent of the earliest music he loved, suggested a potential new direction for his work. He got in touch with South African producer Hilton Rosenthal, who sent him about twenty additional albums by local musicians, and in February of 1985, Simon traveled to Johannesburg to begin recording Graceland. While there, Simon recorded with Tao Ea Matsekha, who helped provide the irresistible groove to "The Boy in the Bubble"; General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, who fired up the funky "I Know What I Know"; and the Boyoyo Boys, who lent the bounce to "Gumboots."
Simon's trip to Johannesburg also triggered a firestorm of protest from antiapartheid groups that charged that, however honorable his intentions may have been, he violated the United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa. For a time it seemed that Simon would be added to the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid's list of censured artists — a list that also includes Linda Ronstadt, who sang on "Under African Skies" on Graceland.
In the wake of Graceland's release, denunciations flew back and forth. Simon insisted that black South African musicians "voted to let me come," were paid triple the union scale for their work on the album and valued the international exposure Graceland would provide for their music. "To go over and play Sun City, it would be exactly like going over to do a concert in Nazi Germany at the height of the Holocaust," Simon said. "But what I did was to go over essentially and play to the Jews."
The explanation did not wash. "When he goes to South Africa, Paul Simon bows to apartheid," said James Victor Ghebo, the Ghanaian ambassador to the UN and an antiapartheid activist. "He lives in designated hotels for whites. He spends money the way whites have made it possible to spend money there. The money he spends goes to look after white society, not to the townships. This is one reason why we do not want people to go there."
Eventually, after months of recriminations, both sides simply seemed to tire of the battle. Simon was never formally added to the list of censured artists. For his part, Simon reluctantly wrote a letter reiterating his refusal to play in South Africa — he had twice previously turned down offers to play Sun City — and donated proceeds from a number of concerts on the Graceland tour to black charities in the United States and South Africa.
From Simon's point of view, Graceland helped in the struggle to end apartheid. "I never said there were not strong political implications to what I did," he said near the end of the Graceland tour. "I just said the music was not overtly political. But the implications of the music certainly are. And I still think it's the most powerful form of politics, more powerful than saying it right on the money, in which case you're usually preaching to the converted. People get attracted to the music, and once they hear what's going on within it, they say, 'What? They're doing that to these people?'"
Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo tells a story about life in Johannesburg that lends resonance to Simon's defense. "I remember there was a riot there," he says. "People were fighting, the kids were fighting. But not Black Mambazo. The policeman ask us, 'Where do you come from?' I said, 'We come from singing.' They said, 'You are singing while the people are fighting?' I say, 'Yes. They are doing their job. I am doing my job.'"