Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ remembered in ‘Under African Skies’

Artists are often portrayed as being outrageous and that goes beyond the substance-abusing temperamental caricature. Paul Simon heard the call of South Africa and ignored a cultural boycott to visit that country and two years later, he produced his seventh studio album in August of 1986. It was called simply, “Graceland.” Joe Berlinger’s 2012 documentary, “Paul Simon’s Graceland Journey: Under African Skies,” follows Simon on his journey back to South Africa when he reunites with the musicians that helped make this award-winning album. “Under African Skies” premieres on PBS Friday, 4 January 2013. Check local listings.

You won’t hear anything about the Los Lobos controversy, but Paul Simon won’t be left entirely off the hook as his breaking of the ANC cultural boycott is a major part of the program. You don’t get the feeling that Simon regrets breaking the cultural boycott.

“In most ways ‘Graceland’ was the most important achievement of my career,” Simon recalls. Harry Belafonte calls it a supreme moment for South Africa.

Quincy Jones notes that you can’t avoid the controversy, but Simon asks the question that has plagued artists (and even athletes) for years. Why should artists and their muses bow to the political machines of nations? Simon notes that he was invited by musicians to South Africa and he didn’t think that his album would have such a cultural impact.

You might be wondering why Harry Belafonte is being interviewed. Belafonte was a considerable force in the Civil Rights movements and is the elder statesman of Civil Rights.

A lot has changed in South Africa since 1986. That was 25 years ago when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned (since 1964) and would not be released until 1990. P.W. Botha was president although he would be replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk in 1985. De Klerk would be the president who announced Mandela’s release. Nelson Mandela would succeed de Klerk and hold the presidency from May 1994 to June 1999 and Simon would be invited to perform at his inauguration.

In 1912, in protest to the apartheid system, the African National Congress (ANC) was formed. In 1958, the ANC called for an academic boycott of South Africa.

For Paul Simon, he was a career low point. He had been partnered with Art Garfunkel from 1964 until 1970. As a soloist, Simon had considerable success, but his most recent album, “Hearts and Bones,” had not sold well.  Simon became inspired by a hand-labeled cassette tape, “Accordion Jive Hits’ by the Boyoyo Boys.

Before he went to South Africa, Simon also called Belafonte who gave him advice that irked Simon. Belafonte recalls Simon’s resistance as being about the “power of art” being supreme” and that he didn’t fell the need to “beg” anyone for permission.

Going to South Africa, Simon recalls was “an adventure that seemed irresistible to me,” and the musicians didn’t all even know who he was. And they didn’t hit it off immediately. Instead, it took a while before they could find themselves as a cohesive group of musicians.

The musicians themselves describe their experiences (such as Ray Phili and Isaac Mtshali of the Stimele and Joseph Shabalala of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo)  and Simon also included South African musicians in exile. Simon was familiar with Ladysmith because he has seen the 1976 movie “Rhythm  of Resistance.” Simon wasn’t totally given the truth of the situation because some musicians felt that the world didn’t fully acknowledge the maturity of the music from black South Africans.

Simon also faces off with Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of Adelaide Tambo a political exile and Oliver Tambo, who was a central figure of the ANC. The Tambos had been in London since 1960 when they fled into exile. Other artist had broken the cultural boycott such as Millie Jackson and Frank Sinatra, but Jackson and Sinatra had visited South Africa to perform concerts for the white minority . Sinatra had performed six concerts in 1981 at the Sun City Hotel Casino and Country Club in Pretoria. He reportedly received $1.79 million. Simon’s visit to South Africa was different. For “Graceland,” Simon collaborated with various South African musicians and he brought musicians to London and New York.  You’ll also see the “Saturday Night Live” performance of Simon and Ladysmith.

Musicians such as Jones, Belafonte, Paul McCartney, Philip Glass and David Byrne and a few music critics (Jon Pareles of the New York Times) talk about the musical and cultural impact of “Graceland,” that won a Grammy for Album of the Year and Record of the Year.

Times have changed. Simon’s “Graceland” remains well-regarded and many of those musicians such as Ladysmith have continued to perform with acclaim. Did a New York Jewish boy take advantage of poor, unknown artists? And does art transcend politics, race and even UN-sanctioned boycotts? That’s for each of us to decide, but the musicians themselves don’t seem to have minded “Graceland” and its impact on the world. This is a balanced portrayal of an artist who took a risk and it paid off in more ways than anyone could have predicted. If you asked Simon now if the risk and controversy was worth it, he’s say yes. The risk was worthwhile and this documentary is a worthy history of artists finding inspiration that crossed false borders and promised the possibility of world peace.

“Under African Skies” premieres on PBS Friday, 4 January 2013. Check local listings.

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