Paul Simon was sweating bullets. Woefully under rehearsed, playing together onstage for the very first time, he and his twenty-four-member Graceland ensemble of black South African singers and musicians were about to make their concert debut, not under a sparkling, starlit African sky but amid the dreary concrete and steel of the Ahoy sports arena in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Outside, the furor over Simon’s controversial journey to South Africa — a trip many antiapartheid activists claim was in violation of the United Nations cultural boycott against that country — continued to accelerate. Inside, disaster, it seemed, was just a drumbeat away, with an evening of strange African bop about to be performed in a dismal setting for a sold-out house of white Dutchmen, some of whom surely hoped to hear at least a few of Simon’s old folk-pop hits.
Simon, in the end, did a lot of worrying for nothing. That night, the magic kicked in, and the audience with it. The first heartbeat thump and tingly guitar twang of the party-invitation instrumental “Township Jive” immediately reaffirmed Simon’s faith in the power of mbaqanga — the swinging Soweto sound that first lured him to South Africa two years ago — to bring whites and blacks together in a celebration of racial unity and dancing madness. The crack rhythm section, led by guitarist Ray Phiri, put real spring into Simon’s rhymin’ as the forty-four-year-old singer-songwriter ran through such Graceland numbers as “I Know What I Know” and “You Can Call Me Al” with pride and relish, making only minimal concessions to his past (“The Boxer,” a high-stepping “Mother and Child Reunion,” a zesty reading of an old doo-wop favorite, the Del-Vikings’ 1957 hit “Whispering Bells,” grafted onto the tail end of “Gumboots”).
Special guest star Hugh Masekela, the exiled South African trumpeter, called for the release of imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela in his jazz-funk anthem “Bring Him Back Home,” while singer Miriam Makeba, a fellow exile, lamented the suffering and repression in her homeland with a soulful torching of Masekela’s “Soweto Blues.” And the extraordinary ten-man a cappella choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo awed the crowd with its sonorous bass harmonies and lively Afro-Temptations hoofing. Simon and his troupe, in fact, were fueled with so much opening-night nervous energy that they ripped through the Rotterdam show, originally timed to run two and a half hours, in only two hours and five minutes.
“People went wild, just wild,” says Simon, still raving about the February 1st blastoff of the Graceland tour. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. But people went crazy, and we were playing so loud and fast. It was like a dance event, a big rock concert. People fainted, and they got lifted over everyone’s heads.”
“The people would not let us leave the stage,” says Masekela. On the second night in Rotterdam, he says, the audience gave the musicians a standing ovation after their stirring performance of the unofficial African national anthem, “N’Kosi Sikeleli” (“God Bless Africa”). “Then they started singing back to us: ‘oh-wey, oh-wey’ — like a football chant. We didn’t know what it meant, but it lasted about ten minutes. We were in shock. It was amazing.”
Indeed, the past few months have been, as Simon sings on Graceland, “days of miracle and wonder” for him and his South African collaborators. Graceland, the unlikely product of Simon’s encounter with a mysterious cassette of South African mbaqanga during the summer of ’84, is in 6 million homes around the world. (In South Africa, the album has been Number One for nine weeks and has sold 110,000 copies, making it the biggest-selling international release there since Michael Jackson’s Thriller.) The robust bounce and soulful melodicism of township jive, which gave Simon’s brainy lyricism a rhythmic kick lacking in his recent work, has become a daily soundtrack in urban yuppie condos and suburban living rooms and on radio airwaves from Australia to Zimbabwe. Graceland‘s success has also spawned sister releases on Warner Bros, by Hugh Masekela (Tomorrow) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Shaka Zulu, produced by Simon). The entire world, it seems, is suddenly moving to a South African beat.
However, these have also been days of hurt and anger for Simon. As a result of his musical field trip to Johannesburg in February 1985, during which he recorded much of Graceland with the cream of South Africa’s black singers and players, he has been publicly censured by the African National Congress and other antiapartheid organizations in the United States and Europe for violating the United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa. Simon’s Graceland shows in England this spring were picketed by antiapartheid protesters, and several prominent English musicians, including Paul Weller of the Style Council, General Public’s Dave Wakeling, protest bard Billy Bragg and Jerry Dammers of the Specials (who co-wrote the U.K. hit “Free Nelson Mandela”) signed a letter to Simon calling for a “complete and heartfelt public apology” for breaching the UN boycott.
Simon, who twice turned down million-dollar offers to play Sun City — the South African entertainment complex located in the black “homeland” of Bophuthatswana — in the past, has never appeared on the UN’s published register of performers who have violated the cultural boycott; earlier this year, he wrote a carefully worded letter to the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, which monitors the boycott, reiterating his status as “an artist who has refused to perform in South Africa” and pledging “to maintain this position in the context of the UN cultural boycott.” Nevertheless, Simon has been challenged by civic leaders, interviewers and fellow musicians throughout the Graceland tour about his position on the South African government’s racist policies, the lack of overtly political songwriting on Graceland and — in the words of a spokesperson for the South African antiapartheid group the United Democratic Front — “the exploitation of the talents of the African musicians for the furtherance of Simon’s own aims.”
“To go over and play Sun City would be like going over to do a concert in Nazi Germany at the height of the Holocaust,” Simon snaps angrily, obviously weary of the topic. “But what I did was to go over essentially and play to the Jews. That distinction was never made.” The charge of exploiting the South African musicians especially irritates Simon. Not only did he pay the South African musicians on Graceland the equivalent of the triple union scale commanded by New York studio vets, but he is not accepting any payment for his Graceland concert performances to ensure that the two dozen members of his road band get maximum paychecks.
“The show breaks even as long as I don’t get paid,” he explains. “Everybody gets paid and makes his or her money. I’m working essentially for free.”
But for Simon and the South African musicians at his side, the hardest part of withstanding the slings and arrows of antiapartheid outrage is reconciling the volatile criticism that has dogged every step of the tour with the rapturous audience reception that greets the troupe — not just Simon but Masekela, Makeba and especially Ladysmith Black Mambazo — every night. During the two all-too-brief weeks of rehearsal, says Masekela, “we hoped it would be as good onstage as much as we enjoyed playing it. But the first audience was a sea of smiling faces, giving us ovations and encores. It was very uplifting. And it was great to see South Africa’s music get to so many people that would never otherwise have listened to it. A lot of people obviously came just to see Paul Simon. But that he was able to bring so many people to hear my country’s music was wonderful.”
Nowhere was the dance-floor enchantment and implicit spiritual harmony in township jive à la Simon more evident than in the February 14th and 15th Graceland performances in the capital city of Harare, Zimbabwe, nearly a day’s drive from South Africa’s northernmost border. To be sure, Pretoria cast a long shadow of fear over Rufaro Stadium that weekend. “Miriam said, ‘I hope you’re going to check the speakers for bombs,'” Simon says soberly. “When one of your main participants asks if you’re going to check for bombs, you check for bombs.” Security for the shows was provided by the Zimbabwe army.