Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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South Africa Romance

Though it's giving in to the album's most suspect tendencies to begin this way, I'm here to tell you that Paul Simon's Graceland is a tremendously engaging and inspired piece of work. If you like him thorny it's his best record since Paul Simon in 1972, if you like him smooth you can go back to There Goes Rhymin' Simon in 1973, and either way you may end up preferring the new one. Simon-haters won't be won over--his singing has lost none of its studied wimpiness, and he still writes like an English major. But at least Graceland gets you past these usages, because it boasts (Artie will never believe this) a bottom. For Simon, this is unprecedented. Graceland is the first album he's ever recorded rhythm tracks first, and it gives up a groove so buoyant it could float a loan to Zimbabwe.

Well, not exactly. Only in metaphor, you could say, and a metaphor of suspect tendency at that, because it implies that music transcends politics. Which, as it happens, puts it near the epicenter of what Graceland has to be about even though there are only two or three vaguely political moments on the entire record--the protesty title "Homeless," a terrorist bomb metaphoring by, like that. Simon recognizes his dilemma. As he has already amply publicized, Graceland's groove doesn't come from nowhere--it's indigenous to black South Africa, in support of which the aforementioned Zimbabwe recently lost its U.S. aid. Now, despite what Simon-haters may expect or even claim, the artist's relationship to the Soweto-centered "township jive" known generically as umbaqanga is deep and committed. I'm not just talking about the way he treated his musicians, paying them triple-scale American in Johannesburg and handing out composer's credits and bringing the Zulu ingom'ebusuku chorus Ladysmith Black Mambazo to New York for a Saturday Night Live spot and a lovely gig at S.O.B.'s. I'm talking about the music itself. This isn't the mere exoticism that flavored past Simon hits with reggae and gospel and Andean pipes. It's a full immersion. And still there's reason to wonder whether it's enough.

At first I didn't think so. I was annoyed by the radical incongruity of the thing, the way chatty lines like "Aren't you the woman/Who was recently given a Fulbright" or a modernist trope like "staccato signals of constant information" bounced over a beat specifically intended to help half-slaves forget their loneliness. But for several years I've been listening greedily to what little umbaqanga I could get my ears on, and pretty soon I was won over. On its own idiosyncratic terms, this is a real umbaqanga album: the rhythms and licks and colors that define the style can't go unchanged in this alien context, but I swear they remain undiluted. Yet at the same time it's a real Paul Simon album: the guy is too bright, and too fond of himself, to try and go native on us. Nor would I call it a fusion, because somehow each element retains its integrity. To use the term favored by David B. Coplan's study of "South Africa's black city music and theatre," In Township Tonight!, Graceland is genuinely syncretic: it reconciles different or opposing principles, at least for the duration of a long-playing record.

Of course, I'm judging as an aspiring aficionado of the township groove. Other listeners may hear Graceland as either utterly normal (songpoetry-with-a-good-beat) or unutterably beyond the pale (revolutionary savagery), but to me that groove sounds fresh and inevitable, with as much affinity for r&b as for the West African polyrhythms beloved by the tiny claque of U.S. juju and soukous and Afropop fans. That claque still includes me, but my allegiances have shifted. Graceland crystallizes a suspicion that had its inception this spring, when musicologist Charles Hamm offered me a hurried phonographic introduction to the tart, rich harmonies and far-reaching clarity of singers who had previously been names in obscure books and articles, most memorably the Soul Brothers and Steve Kekana. The three umbaqanga anthologies assembled by Earthworks in England and released Stateside by Carthage and Shanachie--including The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, my favorite LP of 1986 so far--emphasize energy and drive, but the axiom that the music of Southern Africa is voice-based rather than drum-based was what jumped out at me in Hamm's living room. Over that ebulliently indigenous groove, the voices reached for and attained some sort of international identification, and suddenly I realized that a rock and roll equivalent (and industry) of unimaginable vitality, complexity and high spirits was somehow thriving in apartheid's face.

The story of Simon's romance with umbaqanga began when somebody sent him an otherwise unidentified tape called Gumboots a couple of years ago. As Simon played it in his car he became entranced, improvising tunes over the simple major-chord changes until he decided he had to work with these guys. Only then did he investigate and find out where the music was from. Simon was a little dismayed: "I first thought, 'Too bad it's not from Zimbabwe, Zaire, or Nigeria.' Life would have been more simple." But Juluka producer Hilton Rosenthal sent him more tapes from Johannesburg and he was hooked. After consultation with the likes of Quincy Jones assured Simon that as long as he respected the music and the musicians he'd be all right, he immersed, booking several weeks of studio time in South Africa, where he cut five tracks with musicians from varying tribal traditions and put together a trio to come to the States for more recording. Eventually there were guest appearances from exiled pennywhistler Morris Goldberg, Sunny Ade steel player Demola Adepoju, Senegalese star Youssou N'Dour, the Everly Brothers, Ralph McDonald, Linda Ronstadt. Although the accordion Simon loved on Gumboots doesn't play a large part on Graceland, two American bands that feature accordion, Los Lobos and a zydeco outfit from Louisiana, back up the final two selections, which Simon hopes hit home with compatriots who find all this a touch strange.

The two American cuts are plenty lively, and would have done wonders for Simon's 1983 Hearts and Bones, but on Graceland they fall a little flat, partly because they're not lively enough and partly because they're not strange enough. Why liveliness should be an issue is obvious. Hearts and Bones was a finely wrought dead end, caught up in introspection, whimsy, and the kind of formal experimentation only obsessive pop sophisticates even notice--the rest of us just wondered why the damn thing never left the ground, and in the end so did Simon, leaving him vulnerable to umbaqanga's three happy chords. But the strange part requires more explanation. In remembrance of Rene and Georgette Magritte dancing to doowop's "deep forbidden music" on Hearts and Bones, Simon could have made like Billy Joel, who produced a vaguely "'50s" album after the heavy concepts of The Nylon Curtain failed to go triple platinum. But if Joel is rock's (would-be) Irving Berlin, Simon is some postfolkie cross between Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, constitutionally incapable of doing things the easy way. By the late '70s he'd already applied 12-tone theory to pop composition, so in 1985 he found himself trying to fit first melodies and then lyrics to apparently elementary structures that kept tripping him up as he went along. At some semiconscious level he understood quite well that exoticism on this level was a hell of a roundabout way to return to the simple things, and in the end that's one of Graceland's subjects. It's lively, and it's also strange.

Musically, the strangeness inheres mostly in the continuing integrity of the African and American elements, which makes for that radical incongruity. The beat is still African yet a shade less driven, more buoyant if you approve and lighter if you don't, intricate like pop funk more than juju. Longer melody lines, less chantlike and circular verse-chorus structures, subtler arrangements, Roy Halee's 48-track mix, guest accents, the way Ladysmith's curlicues stand in for straight response singing on some cuts--all contribute to the effect. Since African beats are rarely heavy, this may well make Graceland less European/urban rather than less African, but it's sure to palliate Simon's fans and probably Simon, so it bothered me at first. Soon, though, the buoyancy carried me away. Simon and Halee have found new resources in these musicians, and with the basic trio--guitarist Ray Phiri, bassist Baghiti Kumalo, and drummer Isaac Mtshali, all players of conspicuous responsiveness and imagination--the discovery was clearly collaborative. The record's virtuosic syncretism--juxtaposing Sotho and Shanga and Zulu, umbaqanga and ingom'ebusuku, and then moving north and west, with the African Beats' steel guitar no less striking that Talking Heads' synth guitar--is unusual, too, though it's seamless enough that sometimes you have to stay alert to be sure it's there. But Simon's effortlessly conversational singing on top, so free of rough spots that you know it's a careful fabrication, is truly disquieting; annoyance evolves into uneasy acceptance of this abrupt musical and cultural disparity. And of course the voice comes bearing words.

Simon may write like an English major, but he's long since stopped writing like he's still in school. His ironies can be arid and too often his ideas aren't as big as he thinks they are, but this doesn't make him any worse than the average New Yorker poet, and he's got the music to bail him out--to transmute cliche into reality just as it does for countless more hackneyed lyricists. What the music does for him here, however, goes well beyond the salutory effect of decent melody and rhythm and vocalization on most verse. Graceland is where Simon rediscovers the rock and roll secret, where he throws down his irony and dances. There are many ways to describe this secret--sex or youth or the primitive, spontaneity or simplicity or directness. With Simon, the terms I'd choose are faith and connection, themes that keep popping up on Graceland. Though the title song describes a journey "through the cradle of the Civil War" to Elvis's mecca, which is never attained, it also hints (as Simon agreed when I asked) that somehow the world's foremost slave state is a haven of grace: "Maybe I've reason to believe/We all will be received/In Graceland." In "You Know Me Al," an American beerbelly ends up saying amen and hallelujah in an African marketplace. In "Under African Skies" there's the blessed assurance that "the roots of rhythm remain."

And by leading with "The Boy in the Bubble," his most acute and visionary song in many years, Simon sets up every resonance. Here the African images--lasers in the jungle, a deathly desert wind, a baby with a baboon heart--are no way merely South African, because this is a song about "the way we look to us all." Here the terrorist hides his bomb in a baby carriage and wires it to a radio in a world run by "a loose affiliation of millionaires/And billionaires"; here a boy wants to live so much he seals himself off from that world in a plastic bubble. You can hardly tell the horrors from the miracles, they're everywhere, and for a climax we have the rhetorical "and I believe" that precedes Simon's final repetition of the long refrain. Borne on yet another pulse of Forere Motloheloa's tireless accordion, it sounds like real faith to me, and it cements our connection to all this ironic joy-amid-pain. Simon has done the near impossible--brought off a song about the human condition. Looking for "a shot of redemption," he escapes his alienation without denying its continuing truth, and it's really like the Warners press release says: Graceland "is human music. It celebrates the family of man." I perceive only one problem--Simon found his redemption not in all humanity but in black South Africans. The problem isn't ruinous--as I've been saying, the man is fascinated by the subtleties of his debt and out front about its extent, and he's done plenty to pay it back. But it does deserve detailed attention.

Umbaqanga is an awesome cultural achievement. Even to call it the reggae of the '80s, as Simon has for explanation's sake, is to diminish it slightly. Those who know that in South Africa (even more than on the rest of the continent) reggae is the paradigmatic political pop, while state radio promotes a vigorously self-censored umbaqanga to divert listeners from messages of freedom beamed across the border, may consider this a perverse judgment. But umbaqanga was and is created under far more duress, and anyway, Simon is talking musical influence, not politics, and in that respect reggae has its shortcomings: maybe just because its drug of choice is cannabis rather than alcohol, it's less active and less up. As Simon evidently believes, umbaqanga is the most joyful and redeeming rock and roll equivalent in memory. The way this music contravenes apartheid's determination to deny blacks not just a reasonable living but a meaningful identity seems almost incredible. But that doesn't make it some strange accident.

Compared to most black South African pop, which emulates American pop, soul, funk, and jazz (though by now South Africa has a jazz heritage of its own), umbaqanga honors traditional forms, which fits apartheid's fantasy of the harmless native just fine. But it's by no means tribal or rural--just like Chicago blues and rockabilly and early soul, it's a conscious urbanization. Its capacity for affirmation in the face of horror is an old story in black music (see Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues), and while it doubtless serves some as an escape, it just as doubtless serves others (or the same ones at different times) as a respite, a transfusion, a promise. Pretoria may think it's harmless, and Pretoria may be wrong--so accustomed are the overseers to disdaining bush rhythms that I doubt whether they can discern just how potent this groove is. As Neo Mnumzana of the African National Congress told me: "We have to grant the validity and legitimacy of genuine forms of expression. The regime may not see them as dangerous, but they are strengthening the people in their resistance."

Southern Africans are more interested in voices than drums, but that doesn't mean they don't regard rhythm as one of life's primaries, and umbaqanga is about the beat. By rock standards that beat is pretty elaborate, staggering ostinatos over a jumpy 8/8; the bass is usually high in the mix, leading the groove rather than stirring it up reggae-style, and as Simon discovered when he tried to write metrically identical verses, the songs' rhythmic shapes often evolve incrementally. But by juju standards, say, it's kind of square, which is just why it might appeal to Americans, with our crude tastes in propulsion. And though the beat is southern African first, it's also specifically South African. It must have been bent some by Afro-American models--almost all the music in Soweto is--but there's also the likelihood of direct European influence back in its prehistory: because South Africa has been industrialized for so long, it's always attracted large concentrations of fortune-seekers from England, Ireland, Germany, Holland, Portugal. Umbaqanga reflects the way South Africa has mixed African tribes; it reflects the forced flow of South African life from phony homeland to official slum; it reflects South Africa's industrialization, and its cruel prosperity too. It testifies to the resilience of apartheid's victims, but like everything else in South Africa it also grows out of apartheid. It could no more come from Nigeria, Zaire, or even Zimbabwe than Elvis could come from Johannesburg. And neither could Graceland.

"I'm no good at writing politics," Simon told me. "I'm a relationship writer, relationships and introspection." And of course this is true, yet the romantic isolation he transcends on many of Granceland's songs is also social isolation, and he's pleased enough to acknowledge the South African subtext informing many lyrics as well as the album's gestalt. So why exactly Simon has steered away from politics proper on the album and in interviews is a question that troubles anti-apartheid activists. I spoke to about a dozen all told--black and white, South African and American--and not one was inclined to be judgmental. Merely by recording in Johannesburg Simon violated the letter of the U.N. cultural boycott (not deliberately, he claims). Yet except for exiled pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, who was clearly displeased but declined to comment on Simon's "personal decision," the only one who came close to insisting Simon was flat-out wrong was Amer Araim, a non-South African "international civil servant" at the U.N. Committee Against Apartheid. Elombe Brath, who's been on the picket line ever since Pretoria's Ipi Tombe scam a decade ago, admitted "mixed emotion" because it seems Simon's "intent was honorable"; Jennifer Davis, a 20-year exile active with the American Committee on Africa, kept using the term "gray area" and pointed out that "you can't have nice neat official statements in a situation of tremendous flux"; the ANC's Neo Mnumzana went so far as to suggest that "it's quite possible he might be doing a service to South African culture." Clearly, no one wanted to see black musicians (and black South African culture) denied a chance at exposure, a chance that strictly speaking is forbidden any cultural product of a corporation cooperating with the regime (the cuts on The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, for example). But all were dismayed that Simon remained no good at writing politics under these circumstances. In many ways the most striking testimony came from Charles Hamm, a grandfatherly political moderate who like Simon was in South Africa at the time of the second Sharpeville massacre, which set off the current state of emergency. The experience radicalized him, and he can't quite comprehend how Simon remained insulated. "I have trouble accepting all these lyrics about Paul Simon. It's not so much what he says as what he doesn't say."

Simon doesn't claim to be apolitical as a person--only as an artist. He has his views on South Africa, and he intends to keep them to himself. The reason, he says, is to protect the friends he's made there, especially the black friends: "I'm not gonna open my mouth. I open my mouth and they get a firebomb in their house. These people are living there. They don't like their life--but it's a life." And while several people who don't live there tell me the regime rarely gets that blatant with nonmilitant blacks who are known outside, it seems understandable that Simon and his friends aren't so sure. Still, I'd be curious to know just what Simon's views are, because I detect in him an ideology of anti-ideology that I simply don't trust.

This is a man who supports Amnesty International and twice turned down dates in Sun City; it's also a man who's done fundraisers for Ed Koch and refused to sing on "Sun City" because the demo he was sent named artists who'd played Pretoria's showplace of bogus integration, including his friend Linda Ronstadt (the names were eventually dropped when other artists insisted, but Simon was so offended he didn't even try). This is a man who says he "would never knowingly break the cultural boycott"; it's also a man who calls reluctance of the world music biz to handle South African artists and product "double apartheid," which even if you find the letter of the U.N. boycott misguided is very loose language. Like almost everybody who thinks about South Africa he dreads the bloodbath: "Let's keep pushing to avoid the battle. Millions of blacks could get killed." But his sharpest political statement was on a subject closer to home: "Authoritarian governments on the right, revolutionary governments on the left--they all fuck the artist. What gives them the right to wear the cloak of morality? Their morality comes out of the barrel of a gun. Try and say bullshit on their government, write a poem or a book that's critical of them, and they come down on you. They make up the morality, they make up the rules."

No matter how true you think this is, it's truer than you want it to be for sure. How important it is, however, is another question--very important if you're an American accustomed to going off at the mouth like me or Simon, less so if you wake up every morning with nothing in your belly and a boot in your face. Which makes it an idea that isn't quite as big as Simon thinks it is, an idea typical of all those headstrong individualists whose considered distrust of politics turns them into centrist liberals by default. The depressing saga of Linda Ronstadt in Sun City exemplifies this mentality: I have no doubt that Ronstadt sincerely opposes apartheid, but there comes a time when sincerity is meaningless, when it's reasonable to demand humility if not solidarity or tactical smarts. So it has to be significant that Ronstadt gets a personally designed cameo on Graceland, dueting with Simon on the verses of "Under African Skies," one of which evokes the youth of Ladysmith's Joseph Shabalala in general terms, the other of which evokes Ronstadt's girlhood with marked specificity. The song is attractively straightforward, dealing directly with the religious theme that's alluded to elsewhere, but even if I admired Ronstadt's crystal harmonies as much as Simon, I'd object to the evasive family-of-man-ism implied by the parallel verses. The offense is compounded, of course, by who Shabalala's sister-in-song happens to be: a prominent violator of the Sun City boycott. Even if her lyric called for total U.S. divestiture, Ronstadt's presence on Graceland would be a slap in the face to the world anti-apartheid movement--a deliberate, considered, headstrong slap in the face.

Sincere opponents of apartheid may feel I'm making too much of this, so let me add that it doesn't ruin the album or even the song for me, at least not yet. The music is that good, the salvation through musical synthesis that original. But Graceland does nevertheless circle around an evasive ideology, the universalist humanism that is the secret intellectual vice of centrist liberals out of their depth. It's not so much what Simon says as what he doesn't say. Apartheid's propensity to distort everything it touches comes damn close to doing this album in right now, and in a decade, when the consequences of Simon's tactic are history, it could make the beautiful music of Simon and his black friends unlistenable.

Simon wants the music to speak for itself, but the most eloquent music can only say so much; he wants to "try and bridge cultures," but he can't determine who controls the bridge once it's built. Pretoria broadcasts this music on state radio--"Homeless" and "Under African Skies," not "The Boy in the Bubble"--because Pretoria thinks it's harmless at worst and a vinyl Sun City at best, a demonstration that their hideous system doesn't preclude meaningful racial cooperation. And who knows, this time Pretoria may be right. I don't believe politics transcends music, but I don't believe music transcends politics either. They're separate realms that impinge on each other, and in times of crisis they impinge more and more inescapably. I hope Simon has succeeded in reconciling opposing principles for more than the duration of a long-playing record, because I want to be received in Graceland myself. But there's reason to wonder whether he's done enough.

Village Voice, Sept. 23, 1986