Musical Musing: Graceland, Paul Simon

I’m sitting here this morning, after being in the mood to hear “Graceland” last night (inspired by a trip through Memphis later this summer… not that we’ll necessarily go to Graceland, but it was brought up when I mentioned it to a friend). I LOVE this album, and so this is one of those rare musings that’s not over a specific song, but rather over an entire project by an artist.

Graceland is marked by African, Zydeco, and even Mexican sounds (including the song written by Los Lobos but not credited to them, “All Around The World or The Myth Of Finger Prints). Simon took the album on tour and played a concert in Zimbabwe that featured many of the African artists on the album, as well as several exiled South African singers. It’s from this concert that the above YouTube clips were taken.

The album may be old (it was released 22 years ago!), and many of the sounds in it may well be much older, but there’s still something alive about it to me. I love the mix of sounds, the way the voices overlap each other, the way the sound of the drums mix with the voices singing… almost as if the voices were an instrument of their own. It’s music like this that helps make my music collection so eclectic… I fall in love with a sound and seek out similar and other artists who are willing to explore the byways that led to modern American sound. (Watching Chevy Chase dance and lip synch in “You Can Call Me Al”, while silly and possibly a guilty pleasure, actually didn’t hurt either. ;) )

So often, music is a rehashing of what’s been done before, and not always a clever rehashing. I once fell in love with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s music, only to be disappointed when I could pick his music out, but not which song, because they all sounded so similar to my casual ear. I want unique songs, sounds I’ve not heard before, even if they’re older than I am. I want a sound that’s new to me… and even as old as this album is, it delivers a new and different sound (and it’s worth noting that this isn’t a new discovery; I was 8 when the album was released, and I grew up with the aforementioned video with Chevy Chase… I’ve loved this album every one of the past 22 years!).

Watching these youtube videos, particularly the one with LadySmith Black Mombaza, is an adventure to me. It seems to me that the lead singer is employing a sort of gestural language along with the words he’s singing (sometimes in English, but other times they’re singing in African languages… I don’t know which one(s)). His whole body tells the story in the song they’re singing. I see a sadness in their faces as they sing “Homeless”, and I wonder how many of them lived that life, or watched as loved ones, or people in their villages or townships, lived that life. Are they thinking about their home in South Africa, suffering under Apartheid at the time? The lyrics were written by Simon, but what is in the heart of these men as they sing it?

It’s easy for people in Western Culture, particularly for those of us in the United States, to forget how much our culture has been influenced and shaped by what came before. It’s easy to listen to rock music and forget that it rose from the sounds and rhythms brought over from Africa. It’s easy to listen to Santana and not consider how much of his sound comes from his Mexican heritage (though not hearing the Latin sound in his music would take work!) It’s entirely too easy for us to insulate ourselves in a single sound and shut out the wonders of music from around the world. Accordions are seen as unhip and not-cool, but how many of us actually listen to music with them? How many of us actually give them a chance to earn our respect? They’re all over this album, but more than that, they’re hiding all over the place in pop culture (Drew Carey, anyone?)

That’s one of the miracles of Graceland. It brought the sounds that were already in our music, in world music, and shared them in an intentional way with insulated American ears. After all, the sounds in Graceland may have been born Under African Skies, but that’s no reason they have to stay there!

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