NOT ONLY HAS THE UNITED NATIONS questioned the political propriety of Paul Simon´s Graceland album but even some longtime fans have been suspicious of the poor guy lately. Sure, Graceland sounds great, they say, but isn´t it opportunistic to use South African musicians just when that country´s woes have become a popular cause? And besides, they grumble, isn´t the album really just pop-coated South African music made more digestible for a bigger audience?
Paul Simon proved that the answer to both of those cynical questions is a resounding no when he brought his Graceland act to Paris during a twelve city European tour. (An American tour is scheduled to get under way April 30th.) Featuring exiled South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, vocalist Miriam Makeba, the ten-man a cappella vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and several other African musicians, the show is a triumphant two hours ofjoyous life-affirming music that makes all the squabbling about the Graceland album seem small-minded and irrelevant
´The concert this evening is composed of music from South Africa and from Graceland´, Simon told the audience in carefully rehearsed French. Of the two dozen songs performed, only half were Simon compositions, and nine of those were from Graceland.
Heard alongside some of the music that inspired it, the Graceland material seems even more remarkable: Simon has reworked South African township jive into a personal pop style without diluting its force. The show underscored the ties between South African and American popular music, most plainly with Simon´s extended rendition of ´Gumboots´, which segued neatly into the Del-Vikings´ 1957 doo-wop hit ´Whispering Bells.´
The concert had only occasional moments of overt politicizing. Masekela launched the most direct attacks on the South African government, performing ´Bring Him Back Home:´ a call for the release of jailed black leader Nelson Mandela, and ´Stimela,´ a jazz number that begins with a rap about the conditions endured by black workers at the diamond and mineral mines of his homeland. And although most of the lyrics on Graceland have little connection to the strife in South Africa, it was significant that the only Simon and Garfunkel tune performed was ´The Boxer:´ which nearly two decades after it was written can be applied to the current suffering in South Africa.
The show was divided into sets of two or three songs performed alternately by Simon, Masekela, Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It opened with ´Township Jive:´ a brassy, upbeat song worked out by the company during tour rehearsals, then shifted into a bass-heavy version of Simon´s current single, ´The Boy in the Bubble´. After ´Gumboots´ and Masekela´s set, Simon returned to the stage for ´I Know What I Know´ and a rocking version of´ Crazy Love, Vol. II´ during which an overly enthusiastic fan from Oregon managed to run onstage to shake Simon´s hand before being chased back into the audience by security guards.
The concert´s revelation was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose performance of´Nomathemba´ and ´Ybolabafana´ was spellbinding, with lead singer Joseph Shabalala´s voice flying above the others in an entrancing call and response. Because of their sheer power, the songs captivated an audience completely unfamiliar with Zulu, the language in which they were sung. Simon´s interplay with Ladysmith Black Mambazo - on ´Homeless:´ on a dizzying, frenetic ´Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes´ and on a truly amazing a cappella version of ´Amazing Grace´ - made for some of the evening´s best moments
There were a few rough spots. Closing the concert with the singing of the unofficial African national anthem, ´WKosi Sikeleli´ (´God Bless Africa´), was more heavy-handedly symbolic than entertaining, and Simon´s duet with Miriam Malteba on ´Under African Skies´ was a disappointment. But Simon quickly recovered from that song with an overhauled arrangement of ´Mother and Child Reunion,´ complete with accordion.
Makeba, exiled from South Africa for the past twenty-seven years, seemed moved to be performing before a large and appreciative audience, although she could not help showing a touch of bitterness. ´You have neglected me far a long time:´ said the singer, who is perhaps best known for her 1967 hit ´Pata Pata´.
She proceeded to praise Simon for uniting and focusing attention on so many African musicians: ´I´m looking forward to the day when we will have the opportunity to invite Paul Simon to perform in our country - perform with us in a free South Africa.´
By Frank Spotnitz