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This past Friday, Berklee School of Music had the honor of screening the documentary, Under African Skies. This is a touching commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s album Graceland, full of celebration and explanation of such a thoughtful album. Since the school is lucky enough to have Paul Simon as a member of the Board of Trustees, they also had the opportunity for Bakithi Kumalo, a bassist on the album, to humbly introduce the film himself. As the struggle and impact of Graceland was laid out with the documentary, the audience felt more and more sentimental to Kumalo’s presence at the screening.
Graceland was Paul Simon’s decision to bring pop music to a different understanding. He wanted to take what he loved about the music of South Africa and what he knew about American music, to create something that melded both cultural understandings. Simon pushed through with the idea and traveled to the country to collaborate with local musicians to create what was later called Graceland. Depending on who you ask, Simon either picked the best or the worst time to do so.
At the time, South Africa was facing apartheid where white people overruled much of the country. Throughout the documentary, Simon explained how present the apartheid was within his time in South Africa. Even within the studio, Simon witnessed some tension between the white engineers and the black musicians. Simon saw his recording experience as a wonderful collaboration within all of the social turmoil that ruled the perspective of the country, but some felt differently.
After the initial success of Graceland’s release, people voiced their concern of Simon’s trip to South Africa during the UN’s traveling ban to the country. They saw the record as a privileged white man taking advantage of black musicians, which was magnifying the apartheid situation. Simon had to share his side at press conferences and colleges. When a Howard University student asked of why he would add to the apartheid, Simon answered with a question, “You do not believe in collaboration? I cannot work with them just because they are black?”
Under African Skies was an overhead look on the situation and the inner peace found within the musicians of Graceland. The respect that Simon had for the musicians was clearly reciprocated. The kindness and deep appreciation alludes through the room as the group felt through the music together. Whether it was the Boyoyo Boys, the Gaza Sisters, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the true affection was clear.
Looking at the album so many years later, with so much love and understanding for the intent of the music, opened the film up to a beautiful angle of a reunion concert. “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”, “Homeless”, and the classic “You Can Call Me Al” were performed with dedication and pure fun. As Simon went back to South Africa to get everyone together he professed, “I go back 25 years later and find my dear friends.”The whole documentary offers the opportunity to watch the original interaction between Simon and the South African musicians, and perspectives given after the 25th anniversary of the album. Interviews with David Byrne, Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Vampire Weekend, Whoopi Goldberg, Paul McCartney, and Oprah give a little more light to such a classic album. Oprah even gives Graceland some honor in calling it her “favorite album of all time”.