It was in August, 1986 that ‘Graceland’, the album that defined the genre, ‘World Music’ was released. 25 years down the line, I would like to analyze the significance of that release.
To say that ‘Graceland’ is an example of cultural imperialism would be grossly unfair. A more diplomatic explanation would be the effort of a musician past his peak trying to re-discover his past glory resulting in probably an unfair bias against the African musicians involved in the project. Credits maybe given to Ladysmith Black Mombaza (LBM), Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens or Ray Phiri, but this album in history will be known as ‘written by Paul Simon’. One cannot help that as Paul Simon is undoubtedly the more ‘popular’ musician among all those involved in the album and credit has to be given to him for taking the risk of travelling to a place that was shunned by the entire world in order to collborate with these musicians.
However, from a musical point of view, I find contradicting statements everywhere. The wiki page for Graceland says how the album did not credit Los Lobos for writing the last song of the album. Some other research papers and documentaries stated that many of the songs were merely superficial takes on compositions originally by LBM or Ray Phiri’s band Stimela. After listening to Simon & Garfunkel and Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, it doesn’t take a keen ear to figure that the entirely fresh sound in Graceland has to do with the contributions by African musicians. ‘Homeless’ and ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ were the only two songs that I thought had justified the term collaboration. The rest of the songs sounded different clearly due to the guitar arrangements of Ray Phiri. I doubt if there was a deliberate attempt on the part of Paul Simon to take credit away from the other musicians, it has more to do with the record company using Paul Simon’s popularity to propel the album to the legendary status that it has now.
I do think that the African musicians have benefited from it. How? Here I am in India, listening to South African musicians that were virtually unheard of before the release of this album! They have financially and creatively prospered. One can question the ethics of Paul Simon being awarded the Grammy for this album. But if it wasn’t for him, would these artists have become popular outside their country?
Since I am an economist/policy researcher by profession, I will use an analogy from the point of view of markets. One could have ‘protected’ the cultural identity of indigenous South African music by not allowing Paul Simon to do this project. This can be compared to a closed cultural economy. But, because he did it in spite of protests, both his career and the careers of the others involved in the project took a jump. One could argue that Simon got an unfairly disproportionate amount of credit. This can be compared to an open market with free trade that has significantly raised prosperity at the cost of inequality. A socialist arguer here, does not see the new possibilities that were opened to the otherwise deprived musicians in the closed economy. An arguer for free markets on the other hand would simply not see the greater cultural contribution made by the ‘third-world’ musicians. So, it may seem that it is not possible for first world and third world musicians to have an equitable partnership in terms of musical credit as those with bigger and better resources would always be at a position to extract more from the less-fortunate ones. But if you see these resources as facilities that were previously unavailable to the third-world musicians, then this musical exchange can hardly be called inequitable. The exposure that the South African musicians got through this project has surely benefited them. So, I think that in essence, musically, Graceland sounds more like a South African album with Paul Simon as the guest vocalist rather than the other way around.