Random thoughts... Happy Thoughts... Sad thoughts... Anything goes!!!

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Graceland Album: A Collaboration in Fulfillment of Dreams

In 1985 almost everybody were singing “We are the world.” It was a collaboration of several US artists to help relieve famine in Africa. Also in the same year, Steven Van Zandt popularly known as Little Steven and his group - Artists United against Apartheid released the protest song “Sun City.” The 49 top artists who collaborated for the song pledged not to perform in Sun City, the Las Vegas of South Africa to protest apartheid in South Africa. There was so much focus on Africa during those times and artists were collaborating on music that promoted the causes they believed in.

Now, backtrack a year earlier. Paul Simon was in the low of his music career and was thinking of quitting. He was driving in the late 1984 when he listened to an unusual sound in his cassette. He got so interested that he had to search for the source of the music which was Africa. He listened to different artists and even visited Africa to work with African artists like the Ladysmith Black Mambazo until finally completing the Graceland album which was released in 1986. It was not an easy task and he did not care that some people accused him of breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa for apartheid. He collaborated with African and other artists to come up with the music he envisioned. It was an experiment and a risk and it paid off. The album was a success! It became his bestselling album and his career was revived!

For an unlearned listener like me, I found that the majority of the sounds are like main stream music. Without the visuals, I would not easily associate it with African music. At least that was how I felt while listening to the track “You can call me Al.” It was just like other mainstream music I’ve heard until I listened to “Gumboots” and found similarity in some part… It was similar yet very different! But 9 of the 11 songs were actually the result of Simon’s interest in mbaqanga, the South African sound that had caught his attention in 1984. It made me realize that his collaboration was unlike the collaboration of artists in USA for Africa and Artists United against Apartheid which were primarily for a cause so that most artists were viewed in equal footing. His collaboration involved working with people from other cultures with different “sounds” and styles to come up with the music he has envisioned. It was not primarily about Africa but more on music. Yes, he was the dominant force in the Album, after all Graceland was his project but he could not have completed it without the input of other artists.

Being the producer, he benefitted most from the sales and distribution of the album but the African artists also benefitted tremendously. Their music was recognized by the world. Despite apartheid, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was able to travel outside Africa and perform in other countries. They recorded their own music and also recorded in other languages. They won international awards including several Grammy Awards for their own albums. They collaborated with other well known artists and were even featured in several advertisements. Also, Nelson Mandela called them South Africa’s Cultural ambassadors.

In doing the album, Paul Simon fulfilled the music he envisioned. It also paved way for the fulfilment of a dream of Joseph Shabalala, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. To quote him:

“In the early 1960's I had a dream of a type of singing group that I wanted to create. Not just a dream, in the wishful way, but an actual dream while I was asleep. This beautiful dream led to the creation of my group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Now, some forty five plus years later this original dream has led to so many more dreams. We have been awarded Grammy Awards, represented our homeland of South Africa at many prestigious events, including accompanying Nelson Mandela to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, travelled the world so many times and most importantly, spread a message of Peace, Love and Harmony to millions of people. 

This was never a dream a black South African could ever imagine.” 

So was there a fair and equitable process in the musical exchange between Simon and the African artists while working on the Graceland album? I would say YES. The album was completed based on the music envisioned by Simon, however, he did not take away the music of the African artists. They remained true to their music and have also expanded their music to include other perspectives to reach out to more audience. The Graceland album was a collaboration not just on music but a collaboration that fulfilled the dreams of the artists that worked together and accomplished even more.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home