This Sunday Paul Simon will bring ‘Graceland’ back to London, 25 years after the original tour was picketed by protestors including Paul Weller, Jerry Dammers and Billy Bragg who argued that Simon was wrong to break the cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa.
The BBC marked the occasion this week by broadcasting ‘Under African Skies’, a documentary about the album’s controversial recording process and tour. It’s a fascinating film, including an emotionally tense meeting between Paul Simon and Dali Tambo, who founded Artists Against Apartheid and led the protests.
What’s really interesting is hearing from the South African musicians who made the decision to play with Simon, and how they justified it to themselves, the protestors and their countrymen. Koloi Lebona, a producer who helped to assemble some of the musicians involved, summed it up when he said: “When I brought musicians to the ‘Graceland’ sessions I was patently aware that there was a cultural boycott. It was risky, but our music was always regarded as ‘third world music’. I thought, if our music gets the chance to be part of mainstream music, surely that can’t do any harm?”
A quarter of a century on, despite the phenomenal success of ‘Graceland’ and the rise of great sites like the aptly-titled Awesome Tapes From Africa, tunes from the world’s second-largest continent are still routinely treated as ‘third world music’ despite creating some of the most interesting and experimental sounds around.
From South Africa itself, Spoek Mathambo’s recent second album ‘Father Creeper’ saw him layering bigger, more rocking guitars and proper pop choruses over his Soweto raps and beats. Mathambo has talked in interviews about the fact that he grew up thinking of albums like ‘Graceland’ as a sort of “robbery”, but now he sees it as a clever fusion. Just check out his incendiary cover of Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’ for proof that this can work both ways.
The Very Best, whose second album ‘MTMTMK’ is due next week, are another perfect example of the joyous possibilities that come from cross-continental collaboration. Formed of Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and UK-based production duo Radioclit, they recently had to play a gig in London alongside a video projection of Esau as he wasn’t granted a visa to visit the country. Music is more powerful than border controls, though, and their new record is a move away from their Vampire Weekend-featuring debut towards a more ecstatic electronic sound.
In some ways, Nigerian Afrobeats singer D’banj probably presents the most likely way that African music can escape the shackles of the ‘third world music’ label. With a UK top-ten hit, ‘Oliver Twist’, under his belt as well as a storming set at Radio 1’s recent Hackney Weekend and Kanye West’s name in his phonebook, he’s well on his way to becoming a bona fide mainstream pop star.
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Trying to generalize about African music is obviously as wrong-headed as trying to make sweeping statements about the state of “European music” but this is an exciting time and the world feels smaller than ever. When Paul Simon takes the stage in Hyde Park this weekend alongside Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a band of great South African musicians he’ll know he owes them a huge debt for the music that made ‘Graceland’ what it is. They’ll also know they played their part in kicking in the doors for generations of cross-cultural collaboration to come.