Paul Simon´s traveling musical extravaganza, the Graceland Tour, hit New York´s Art Deco palace, Radio City Music Hall, boasting Hugh Masakela, Miriam Makeba, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo as additional names on the marquee. The show, as Simon announced onstage in a carefully dichotomized description, was intended to be ´a presentation of South African music and the Graceland album.´
It succeeded on both counts. Ironically, the aesthetic division between South African forms and his hybrid that Simon is so rightly keen on maintaining was undercut during the course of the performance in several, some of them deliberate, ways.
From the moment the rich blue computer driven haze suffused the cavernous Music Hall stage, everybody on the bill was out front. Ladysmith danced out to lead the chorale, Masakela worked with the two saxes to make a section, Makeba sang with the three backup female vocalists, and Simon himself strummed a black Everly Brothers - style acoustic Gibson. For the remainder of the two-and-a-half-hour show, the musicians - two guitars, bass, keyboards, two congas, traps, two saxes, trumpet/flugelhorn, and vocalists, many of them from the Graceland LP - came and went, forming into different configurations to back different leaders. No opening acts and headliners here; more along the lines of a revue or, for that matter, an African gig where the show spins on seamlessly for hours while various members of the cast appear and leave as their services are needed - the evening was structured to present non-stop, interwoven performances by the various marquee sharers. The result was a fascinating and buoyant evening that journeyed across a vast musical terrain: Ladysmith´s churchy heartstopping harmonies, vocal effects, prancing and dancing; Makeba´s unique blend of indigenous folk tunes and techniques (her famous Xhosa clicking was much in evidence) and Western pop; Masakela´s own brightly burnished mix of African and Western jazz-pop; and, of course, Simon´s fusion of Tin Pan Alley and mbaqanga.
Introduced by Simon as exiles from their native land because of their longterm out spoken opposition to apartheid, both Masakela and Makeba took the opportunity to reiterate that opposition. Masakela, for example, introduced a bluesy vamp called Stimela with a long recitative that recounted the harrowing lives of blacks forced to work the South African mines, beginning with a list of places they came from and then telling of the horrors that grind them down in the filthy, funky barracks which, shorn of family and neighbors, they are forced to call home. Makeba (´She´s been in exile 27 years,´ Simon pointed out) opened with Masakela´s Soweto Blues, which memorializes the riots of June 16, 1967 when, as she put it, ´The children said no to apartheid.´ Those children - their numbers have nearly hit 1,500 now - still languish in South African jails.
But if there were political points to be made, there was also a great deal of entertainment to be had. The band was honed and tight, seguing from one musical style to another without either a slip or a loss of energy, and the sound was excellent, allowing the vocal riches to pour out over the several thousand seats like molten gold. Too bad Radio City doesn´t have a dance floor. By the time of the encores - Simon´s The Boxer, Amazing Grace, and the African National Anthem, with all hands onstage - the audience, which had been clapping along with its faves all night, rose to a huge ovation that grew when Makeba announced, ´We here onstage know that someday we will have the honor to invite Paul Simon to perform with us in a free South Africa.´