Paul Simon's 'Graceland' 25th anniversary box set is a trove of riches
It might seem there'd be little left to say about Paul Simon's watershed 1986 album "Graceland," which is being reissued today in a deluxe four-disc 25th anniversary box set.
Simon collected Grammy Awards for the title track and the album, as record and song of the year. It was No. 71 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time and introduced millions of listeners to the wonders of the music of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, among its other attributes.
But the new box set does indeed help shed new light on the music and the entire project by way of the various bonus features that now accompany the original album.
Chief among them is the disc containing Joe Berlinger's fascinating documentary "Under African Skies," laying out the controversy around Simon violating the United Nations' cultural boycott of South Africa's racist apartheid system when he recorded several tracks in Johannesburg with the members of Ladysmith and other musicians from the region.
As noted in her review for The Times recently, film critic Betsy Sharkey lauded Berlinger for the riveting portrait assembled as Simon returned to South Africa last year on the 25th anniversary of his sessions there. The musician met with Dali Tambo, one of the founders of Artists Against Apartheid, who had criticized Simon for flaunting the boycott. Their discussion a quarter-century later isn't without tension, even though each offers unqualified expressions of respect for the work of the other.
Simon's take is that art transcends politics and that artists should not always be subservient to politicians. That view can sound self-serving, coming from Simon, but he gets some heavyweight support in supplemental interviews from Paul McCartney, Harry Belafonte, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and Quincy Jones, among others.
It also incorporates Simon's 1986 performance on "Saturday Night Live," for which he was joined by the dazzling Ladysmith Black Mambazo troupe before any of the songs from the album had been released, in a breathtaking appearance that can be seen here:
Beyond the film, there's another disc with studio outtakes, including a jaw-dropping early take of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" that is largely just Simon's vocal along with bassist Baghiti Khumalo running gloriously wild and funky over the fretboard of his instrument. The same disc has an audio interview with Simon talking about the making of the title track, illuminating how this cross-cultural collaboration gestated.
The fourth disc captures the 1987 concert Simon gave in Zimbabwe on his "Graceland" tour, where he was joined by South African pop musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
To paraphrase Rod Stewart, every album may indeed tell a story, but some stories are dramatically more compelling than others. The story of "Graceland" is one of the most compelling in all of pop music.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Paul Simon, center, with Joseph Shabalala, left, of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and other musicians who were part of the "Graceland" tour. Credit: Radical Media