Saturday, February 16, 2013

"Graceland" Revisted

It seems odd that Paul Simon's Graceland is over 25 years old. And I remember one thing -- it sounded fresh back in the day. The African textures and cool background call and response. 

 I recently took a class at Penn through on World Music, and I had the chance to listen to listen to the album again. It still sounded good -- especially the "African" parts. But the the songs, with Simon singing, and the rhythm tracks sound, well, just "So 80's." 

Which I'm OK with. Since I, too, am "So 80's."  =)

For the curious, here is a link to the opening track on Graceland, "The Boy in the Bubble." I still think the song is great. Below it, I have attached a paper I wrote from a musical anthropologist's perspective.  

Graceland, cultural imperialism and the politics of culture.

"Those that has, gets - Especially when a rich nation trades with a developing one.”
This is a paraphrase of a generalizable rule, backed by incisive research, that Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang (2008) argues permeates all economic activity. This rule explains why the American, Paul Simon, and his record label benefited more monetarily than his South African collaborators from the seminal 1986 recording Graceland. After all, despite its artistic aims, Pop Culture represents revenue to Western corporations.

The "money motive" explains why Malm noticed that artistic “Cultural Exchange” often degenerates into unequal “Cultural Dominance” (Muller, 2012). His observations can be seen as one instance of Chang’s repeating pattern. 

In Graceland, though, Western economic “Dominance” encroaches on the artistic, with commercial concerns creeping into the production. Though the album uses exotic instruments and African musical textures, these elements are decontextualized, and used to spice up Western pop fare. Even polyrhythms, arguably the defining feature of African music, are replaced by standard Western 4/4 time (Muller, 2012).

However, Simon showed a genuine respect for the South African musicians, and was incredibly open to their ideas. To cultivate these "exotic" sounds, Simon and his producer created a free, unrestrained atmosphere during the Graceland sessions. Instead of recording songs, the music grew organically as the musicians jammed. Microphones strewn about the room to captured the music. Back in New York, Simon and his producer stitched together coherent tracks from the raw recordings, for which Simon wrote lyrics (

So, we are faced with an intriguing question: “Who actually wrote the songs on Graceland?” Simon did not have the musical experience necessary to record this polyrhythmic, highly textured music. He and his production team essentially manipulated musical phrases that existed in the hearts as minds of those South American musicians.

Should the musicians get credit? Maybe. But, did they have the engineering skill to sample, polish and mold the hours of into a coherent whole? And, what about Simon's lyrics?

An oft-quoted African proverb seems to apply here: “It took a village.”

Despite the asymmetries of power, Graceland, as a work of art, seems to be a Cultural Collaboration - albeit one tinged with economic Domination. Though Americanized, Africa still speaks through these tracks. And the music communicated powerfully in 1986, eventually climbing to #3 on the US Billboard charts (, and #1 in the UK ( By making African culture less foreign, the album introduced an entire generation to South African music, humanizing its people in Western minds. 

Chang (2008) points out that awareness of inequality is the first step on the path towards change. The economic inequalities present in Graceland may be have been inevitable in 1986. But they do not detract from Graceland's cohesive power, which connected Africa and Europe in the embrace of brotherhood. Graceland actually seems to be a model, illustrating how every human can, though creative collaboration, forge binds of enduring beauty. 

References (n.d.). Paul Simon: Graceland. Retrieved from [Last Accessed 4 August, 2012]. (n.d.). Paul Simon: The making of ‘Graceland’. Retrieved from,AAAAAAAA5vE~,Eeb-O-20Rk_Gt0yZ5xUoPnGzbsOa7Er8. [Last Accessed 2 August, 2012].
Chang, H. (2008). Bad samaritans: The myth of free trade and the secret history of capitalism. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press. (n.d.). Paul Simon: Graceland. Retrieved from [Last Accessed 4 August, 2012].
Muller, C. (2012). Listening to World Music: Week 2. Retrieved from [Last Accessed 2 August, 2012].

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