Graceland – From breaking a boycott to rocket launching World Music

“These are the days of miracle and wonder…

This is a long distance call…”

Graceland could have been a historical disaster and the end of Paul Simon’s career. Instead, it became a bridge over trouble waters. The highly controversial album brought many South African’s musicians to the world’s attention, such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Youssou N’Dour Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Although it had everything to go wrong with, it ended up as Simon’s most successful album, selling  over 14 million copies since its release in 1986 . The timing could not have been more controversial, with Nelson Mandela still in prison and with a UN cultural boycott against the South Apartheid regime in place.  While Paul Simon was accused of breaking the boycott, many Black South African artists defended him for creating the bridge that enabled their rich heritage reaching the rest of the world. But all the arguments and criticisms against Paul Simon’s initiative in 1986 are now water under the bridge, with much of the story’s background available through Google’s searches. One of my favourite blogs on this subject is from Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of Global Voices, in which he tells the full story behind the production of Graceland on the post “Paul Simon’s Graceland and lessons for xenophiles”.

Taking inspiration from other cultures is something that musicians have always done. This process can be done through assimilation, aculturalization or even appropriation. Graceland had a different creative approach, which involved equal collaboration. As related through several documentaries, Paul Simon did not have the songs ready at the beginning of the project. He joined the bands in the studio and asked them to play different tunes, which were then put together at different recording sessions. Songs such as  “The Boy in the Bubble”, “I know what I know” , “Gumboots”, “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, where the South African artists share the songwriting credits with Paul Simon, are good examples of this process. However, perhaps part of the controversy around “Graceland” was the fact that due to the political issues going on in South Africa at the time, there was an expectation for Simon to produce a benefit album. At this stage,  I find important to differentiate a “Benefit album”  from  a “Collaborative Album”. Benefit albums can be traced back from George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971.  Fast-forwarding to 1984, we watched and listened to Bob Geldof’s “Do they know it’s Christmas” and the LiveAid Concert. Geldof’s album was far more ambitious than Harrison’s  while  there was no collaboration with African artists at all. “Concert for Bangladesh”  included, at least, collaboration with Ravi Shankar.

There is probably lots to be cynical about benefit albums and concerts. Who is actually benefitting from them, when a disaster turns into a party  and a  spectacle is just as big as a tragedy? What are the real intentions behind the celebrities involved when, during a low point in their career,  their actions can be translated into a marketing opportunity ? Who monitors the proceedings to make sure that  the bulk of it goes to fulfils its original goals, while it would be ridiculously naïve to  expect the entire amount of raised money to get across borders, mercenaries, local politicians and army rebels without any subtraction? In the case of LiveAid,  a concert that acquired such holy  aura, any questioning might be treated as an insulting blasphemy, as experienced by  The Guardian columnist Rageh Omaar in 2010 (Even Band Aid is not above criticism ).  Critics of benefits albums and concerts argue that such events reinforce Western ethnocentrism, while ignoring the political issues behind environmental disasters.  They are transformed into a way for the wealthy in the developed countries to easy their guilt through charity work, while robbing the dignity of those who are “helped”. After all, what could be more patronizing and out of touch than singing  “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time…The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life..(Oooh) Where nothing ever grows…No rain nor rivers flow..Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”

Nevertheless, Bob Geldof’s work set up a template for new Benefit albums:  worldwide famous musicians were recruited to participated according to their fan base. Soon after “Do they know is Christmas”, Michael Jackson organized a similar gathering of artists, including Paul Simon, to record “We are the world” under the title “USA for Africa”. “We are the World” had as much to do with World Music as “Do they know is Christmas”. Again, there was no participation from African Artists. This fact lead Peter Gabriel to start RealWorld records, one of the first labels distributing World Music.  From mid to late 80s,  Africa’s humanitarian crisis was  still top news. The Cold War was becoming irrelevant, with the disintegration of the USSR and the collapse of the Berlim Wall.  The Military Dictatorships set up by USA, France and UK in Latin America, in their attempt to stop any of those nations becoming socialist, were also ending with the military handing over their power to democratically elected new governments. The concept of First, Second and Third Worlds was also changing. Originally, after the Second World War, there were only First World and Second World. These concepts were used to represent a world divided by the Capitalist and the Socialist block of nations. In 1952, Alfred Sauvy, a French Historian coined the term Third Word in an article written for L’Observateur, to categorize the countries that took a neutral position. It was later that the media exploited the term “Third World” to refer to poorer nations or nations that did not follow the same development model as United States and Europe.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the coverage of the famine in Africa was causing a mixed reaction. While there was plenty of sympathy for the plight of Africa, local campaigners were dragging attention to a humanitarian crisis at home. The Northeast of Brazil was also going through a severe drought and famine that had lasted decades. Inspired by Live Aid and USA for Africa, a group of Brazilian artists gathered for a benefit album to raise famine relief for the Brazilian Northeast, called “Nordeste Ja” (Northeast Now). The video clip of the lead song “Chega de Magoa” (Enough of Resentments), reunites Brazilian Artists from all over the country, representing the ethnic and musical diversity in Brazil. The producers followed the same template established by Bob Geldof.

It is interesting to note a contrast between the lead clip “Chega de Magoa” and another clip of the same album called Seca D’agua (Drought).

While the first clip counts with the performance of artists from all over Brazil, Seca D’Agua is composed only by artists from the Northeast. One of the verses makes a direct reference to the Ethiopian plight ” estao sofrendo por la, mas o maior sofrimento e nessas bandas de ca” (they are suffering out there, but the biggest suffering is right next to us), highlighting a type of resentment towards the fact that media had ignored the national tragedies in favour of international topics. This was  felt as a paradox with many Brazilians debating of who should be given more help: those in a faraway country or people next door? Yet, in Brazil, the album “Nordeste Ja” sold less than “We are the world”.

Despite the Ethiopian coverage in Brazil of 1986, when Graceland was launched, we were generally unaware of what was going on in Africa, and in specifically in South Africa. This changed with Graceland. In 1989, Paul Simon arrives in Brazil to produce the album “Rhythm of Saints” with the group Olodum. Until 1990,even very few Brazilians outside the state of Bahia knew about the Olodum.

The peculiar beat of the Olodum was used by Paul Simon as the opening for the song “The Obvious Child” from the Rhythm of Saints album.
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