In the halcyon days of my youth, there was little music that my parents and I could agree on. One artist that managed to bridge the gap was Paul Simon. While they reflected fondly on the folky days of Simon and Garfunkel, I identified him as a pop singer with songs like ‘Slip Sliding Away’ and ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’. But when ‘Graceland’ came out in 1986, it was an album that truly brought us together – the cool African beats, discovering Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Chevy Chase in the video! I felt hip and my parents did too. Believe it or not though, I wasn’t the one to ‘discover’ Ladysmith Black Mambazo in my family. After bringing home the record (yes…vinyl!) and waxing global about the amazing sounds of this African band, my father casually pulled out one of their albums from the storage in his hi-fi and trumped me forever.
It was no surprise to me then that my parents decided to accompany me when I wanted to see the ‘Graceland’ tour. The event was on 1 July 1987 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and even my little sister joined us. It was a family affair. It is also still the only rock concert I have ever been to with my father. It rained that day and we had managed to secure only one pavilion seat and three lawn seats. We rotated who got to sit out of the rain. So in addition to it being a seminal musical event for my family, it was a crazy good time as well. I still remember watching Ladysmith Black Mambazo dance and sing. They were compelling and unique and like nothing else before them.
Graceland was an album that broke new ground for both Simon and the rest of the music buying public. Initially considered a flagrant violation of the boycott of South Africa and their apartheid policies, Graceland brought black South Africans in to the forefront of the world music scene. Simon was led down this path by a cassette tape of ‘Accordion Jive Hits’ from an unknown band called the Boyoyo Boys. He used those riffs (yes, accordion riffs!) to create the song ‘Gumboots’ with them. Simon was only in South Africa for a week and a half, but he managed to record enough there to change the face of world music forever. Not only was it the first time Ladysmith Black Mambazo had ever sung with musical accompaniment, but soon other artists went to South Africa to take advantage of the rich musical heritage it had to offer. And although the end of apartheid wasn’t to be seen for another eight years after the album’s release, it helped bring the sounds of South Africa to people who may not have been aware of them before.
The album was universally praised winning a Grammy in both 1987 and 1988, and making the Best Albums lists for a wide variety of publications from the New York Times to Pitchfork, from Rolling Stone to The Guardian. Even today it still garners enthusiastic accolades. In honor of the 25th anniversary of its release, a documentary ‘Under African Skies’, chronicling the creation and lasting influence of ‘Graceland’, will have a US television premiere and will screen at several summer festivals. Legacy Recordings will also be offering several 25th anniversary versions the album on 4th June including a Box Set, CD/DVD, Vinyl, and more. And with three dates in Dublin and London in July, you very well may be able to catch some of these legendary songs live this summer. You can watch a trailer for the documentary below.
So now I am the next generation of parent looking to find some musical crossover to share with my kids. I’m not confident that I will find anything as good or as enduring as ‘Graceland’. I was lucky.