MUSIC

Tapping pop music’s African roots

NICHOLAS JENNINGS May 4 1987
MUSIC

Tapping pop music’s African roots

NICHOLAS JENNINGS May 4 1987

Tapping pop music’s African roots

MUSIC

Chicago, self-declared home of the blues, is an American crossroads of race and culture. But even by local standards, th colors, rhythms and faces on tour recently at the city’s opera house were exotic. Black artists from Africa—the true wellspring of black music—dazzled the mostly white audience with a vibrant rhapsody of rhythm and harmony. The evening’s highlights were the stirring melodies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South Africa’s leading Zulu vocal group—and the moment when its 10 members joined trumpeter Hugh Masekela, singer Miriam Makeba and others to sing “N’Kosi Sikeleli Africa” (“God Bless Africa”,), the unofficial national anthem of South African blacks. On a stage full of black and brown faces, one lone white performer stood out: Paul Simon. Indeed, if there was a headliner that evening, it was Simon. His African-flavored Graceland album had lent its name to the show. Yet for half of every performance on the current Graceland tour, Simon turns the stage over to South African artists—an astute move from someone who is both catalyst for the spectacle and the centre of controversy surrounding it.

Music fans and industry executives

alike have hailed Simon’s Graceland as an artistic milestone. Although diluted strains of African influence flow through most forms of Western music— from ragtime to rock, from jazz to the blues-inflected works of 20th-century classical composers—only a few musical explorers have sampled African sound at the source. Recorded in part in South Africa, using local black musicians and borrowing the buoyant sounds of mbaqanga (township jive), Graceland is the surprise hit album of the decade. Since its release last fall, worldwide sales have topped more than four million. On Feb. 24 Graceland earned Simon a Grammy award for Album of the Year. The following week it easily swept The Village Voice’s influential poll of music critics in the same category.

Already Simon is being credited with sparking widespread interest in African pop music. Proof is the sudden flood of albums and tours by artists from both southern and West Africa. Meanwhile, Hollywood is approaching African musicians to use their music on movie sound tracks. Said Ladysmith’s leader, Joseph Shabalala: “I have given Paul the Zulu name of Vulindela, meaning ‘opening the way.’ ” Just as unexpected is the

success of the Graceland tour, which opened on Feb. 1 in Rotterdam, Holland, and has played to sold-out shows on three continents. It was originally scheduled to close this week at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Due to enormous demand, it will extend into the summer, with 20 more concerts in Australia and North America, including Toronto and Montreal in late June.

Yet for all the kudos he has earned for Graceland, Simon, 44, has paid a hefty political price. By recording portions of the album in Johannesburg in 1985, the New York singer-songwriter drew a chorus of righteous rage from anti-apartheid activists, who claimed that he broke the United Nations-sponsored cultural boycott of South Africa’s white supremacist regime. In his defence, Simon insists that his antiapartheid stance is clear. As well, he paid the Johannesburg musicians triple the American union scale and even arranged direct royalty payments to those who collaborated with him.

Still, the criticism continues. Last month England’s anti-apartheid community picketed his London concerts, claiming Simon had not given a UN subcommittee “categorical assurance” that

he would not return to South Africa. An editorial in The Times of London criticized the demonstrations as “ill-conceived.” But Karen Talbot, spokesman for the foremost lobby group, the AntiApartheid Movement, said that her organization was stressing the need for complete isolation of South Africa. Said Talbot: “It’s almost as if Simon thinks he is above politics.”

Simon’s principal defence is artistic— his sheer love of South Africa’s raw, rugged music. Although Graceland contains no overt references to the political situation in South Africa, he told Maclean’s that the simple act of giving voice to South African blacks was a gesture of solidarity: “I believe the record is anti-apartheid by its very nature. How can people not get that?”

To defuse the criticism, Simon has decided to donate the proceeds from his future U.S. concerts to various charities.

And he made Masekela and Makeba costars on his tour, despite the fact that neither performed on Graceland. Both are South African exiles and longtime opponents of apartheid. Neither performer feels that the Graceland tour represents a compromise—an attitude shared by many of their black fans at home. In fact, Masekela argues that a complete cultural boycott of South Africa would only cut off what little contact blacks there have with the outside world. “For anti-apartheid people to put so much energy into the Graceland issue means they’ve been diverted from the oppressors,” he said.

While Masekela and Makeba lend political credibility to the Graceland tour, the musical prestige they add is far greater. A Grammy award winner, Makeba is best known for Pata Pata and The Click Song, which feature the distinctive tongue-snapping sounds of her native Xhosa language. She immigrated to the United States in 1959 and was blacklisted in the late 1960s for her associations with black radicals. Now living in Guinea, Makeba is working on a new album, produced by Masekela.

At 48, Masekela is a star of Africa’s jazz community. Two decades ago he scored a No. 1 hit in North America with Grazing in the Grass, a rollicking song based on a Zambian tune. He has also recorded with trumpeter Herb Alpert and regularly performs at festivals in Europe. Last month Warner Bros, released Masekela’s latest album, Tomor-

row, featuring Bring Him Back Home, an urgent dance number about jailed black South African leader Nelson Mandela.

While Makeba and Masekela inject the tour with seasoned African sounds, Simon in turn provides them with unprecedented mainstream exposuresomething his album has already given Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In fact, in concert, Simon often withdraws to the shadows of the stage to let Ladysmith enjoy the spotlight. The group’s intricate Zulu numbers, with their call-and-

response techniques and accompanying dance steps, hold white audiences’ attention as easily as their fluent rendition of the classic hymn Amazing Grace. And when they join Simon in singing hits from his album, including Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and the lovely a cappella song Home-

less, standing ovations are routine.

The exposure is bringing Ladysmith its own following. TV appearances with Simon on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show and the Grammy awards have added to their profile. This month the group will release its first album on a major North American label, Warner Bros .—Ladysmith Black Mambazo, produced by Simon himself and featuring four songs in English. On July 9 and 10, the group will appear at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. And Maclean’s has learned that Ladysmith will appear

in a Michael Jackson video and possibly sing on Jackson’s long-awaited follow-up to Thriller, both due for release in late summer. Reflecting on the group’s success, Shabalala said: “It’s growing. Everything is open now because Paul Simon opened the way.” The West’s appetite for African beat has brought other artists overseas, although not without difficulty. Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé, who performs densely rhythmical juju music, enjoyed a burst of popularity when he toured widely in 1983. But his music’s complicated rhythms and impenetrable Yoruba-language lyrics prevented Adé from reaching wider audi-

ences. Now he is trying again, with North American tour that includes concerts in May in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour is pursuing a different strategy. Having established himself with appearances on British pop star Peter Gabriel’s best-selling album, So, N’Dour has released Nelson Mandela, his own album debut on PolyGram.

According to Simon, the market ready for an explosion of African music. “Africans are the great rhythm people of the world,” he said. “And their percussion and musical grooves sound fresh.” Already Graceland is paving the way for other South African music. Indeed, an obscure compilation of township jive, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto joined Simon’s album in the Top 10 of The Village Voice’s poll. As the Graceland tour rolls on, political debate flares intermittently. But the strongest protests are not coming from anti-apartheid activists —they are from fans unable to get tickets to the most trail-blazing musical, adventure of the decade.

-NICHOLAS JENNINGS in Chicago