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Singer Paul Simon, left, and director Joe Berlinger, from the film "Under African Skies," pose for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in Park City, Utah. (Victoria Will/AP)
Singer Paul Simon, left, and director Joe Berlinger, from the film "Under African Skies," pose for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in Park City, Utah. (Victoria Will/AP)

Music

Paul Simon documentary revisits Graceland controversy Add to ...

The accordion starts pumping a rhythmical stomp, like a hurdy-gurdy in the South African brush.

The notes, played by Forere Motloheloa and now one of the most recognized snatches of music of the past few decades, opens Paul Simon’s Graceland – an album that did more than blend African rhythms and Western pop, it elevated the whole commercial category of World Music.

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Yet Motloheloa’s notes and his collaboration with Simon also inadvertently ushered in a controversy that has simmered since the album’s release 25 years ago.

In the eyes of the African National Congress, Simon broke the United Nations’ cultural boycott by travelling to Africa and working with its musicians during a particularly brutal period of the apartheid regime. And despite bringing the sounds of artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a larger world stage – the album has sold more than 14 million copies – some critics will forever see Graceland as the work of another white pop artist appropriating African music.

The story of the album and attendant controversies has been retold in the documentary Under African Skies, which screens on Wednesday in Toronto and will be included in a box-set reissue of Graceland come June. In the film, Simon returns to South Africa to meet with the musicians from the album.

On the phone recently from New York, the singer-songwriter talks with unusual candour about the collaboration and the tense time in which it took place.

“Really, the story is that from everybody’s perspective, nobody – from me to the musicians to the ANC – was entirely altruistic,” he says. “Everybody had something they wanted to accomplish that was, on some level, beyond what the actual [anti-apartheid]struggle was. The ANC wanted to establish the fact that nobody does anything there without their permission. The musicians wanted to get their music out to the world. I wanted to record music that I loved.”

He pauses. “This is my opinion, by the way, after years thinking about it.”

For his part, Simon was already infatuated with the sophisticated polyrhythms and soul of South African music by the time he travelled there. African sounds – think King Sunny Adé’s 1982 breakthrough album Juju Music – were already breaking big in the West. And after the lacklustre reception of his 1983 album Hearts and Bones, Simon was searching for new inspiration. (He had also, for the first time in his career, been given a new artistic freedom by his record company, which was wondering whether he had passed his prime.)

In South Africa, most of the musicians Simon approached were happy to accept his invitation, including the group Stimela, featuring celebrated guitarist Ray Phiri, which became the main backing band for Graceland. Simon paid the musicians double or triple the New York rates for session musicians and also gave some of them, such as Motloheloa, songwriting credits.

“Between the time that I went there and the time that the record came out was almost 18 months – I think it was like 16. Nobody said anything [critical]to me in those 16 months. It wasn’t until the record came out and was a hit that I was attacked,” Simon says.

“Nobody even came and said, ‘Hey listen, we have a policy and maybe you inadvertently broke this policy. And we would like you to make a public statement or something,’ ” he added. “When I met with the ANC after the attacks began, I said that we have no argument with the ANC. We would be happy to join the ANC and do concerts. I certainly didn’t want to be in a fight. Nobody in our group wanted to be in a fight, but they didn’t want that. They said, ‘No, the rule is the rule, and that’s what the policy is.’ ”

In the film, though, the ANC’s position is clear. Here was a musician undermining the political and cultural isolation of the apartheid regime: Yes, the resulting album was joyous. Yes, it brought a new global appreciation for South African music. But it went against the policy of the official anti-apartheid movement.

“We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do. And it was a serious job. We saw Paul Simon come in as a threat, and we saw it as an issue because it was not sanctioned, as we saw it, by the liberation movement,” says Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the late ANC president Oliver Tambo. “This situation was not about Paul Simon. It was about liberation of the people of South Africa.”

Simon had also had a complicated relationship with Artists United Against Apartheid, a group led by musician Steven Van Zandt. Simon felt that some of its work was posturing, and he and musical partner Art Garfunkel had turned down a reported $1-million offer to play Sun City, an invitation that most of the anti-apartheid artists never got.

All this meant that when Graceland became a hit, “we started out by just having to defend ourselves, which was a difficult position to be in,” Simon says. And 25 years later, he still talks, not necessarily defensively but emphatically, about the music as being separate from politics.

“I think Paul was using this trip to explore these wounds, which I don’t think he realized still existed,” says Joe Berlinger, the director of the documentary.

In the film, Simon returns to a warm reunion with the Graceland musicians. “I was deeply impressed by how important this was to all of them. From an experiential, political and individual standpoint, this was a seminal event in all of their lives,” Berlinger says.

Simon also has an unusual, unstaged meeting with Tambo, in which both talk frankly all these years later, telling their side of the story. “It was very unclear that the cultural boycott encompassed recording with black South Africans. I think that’s the big misunderstanding. I don’t think Paul came into the country knowing he was breaking a cultural boycott,” Berlinger says.

Simon was never put on any blacklist, and neither were the musicians. He simply suffered criticism. But time has changed everything. Simon says any tension between him and the ANC ended with the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela (not to mention the 1994 end to apartheid). The musicians, particularly those shown in the film, describe Graceland as opening up South Africa. Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, can’t stop hugging Simon as a brother.

“Actually, the achievement of Graceland and what it overcame was not a political thing,” Simon says. “It was an artistic bridge that was new at the time. And that was really the achievement. But the other is a juicer story.”

Follow on Twitter: @Guy_Dixon

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