Magical is Art: Under African Skies

Under African Skies
dir. Joe Berlinger | USA | 2012 | 102 min.

It’s a turn-around jump shot
It’s everybody jump start
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
The boy in the bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart

—Paul Simon, “The Boy in the Bubble

In 1959, a South African singer and civil-rights activist named Miriam Makeba made her US television début on The Steve Allen Show—the same year Allen accompanied Jack Kerouac on his now-famous reading of an extract from “On the Road,” and five years before an apprehensive-looking young folksinger named Bob Dylan gravely recounted “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Makeba’s first television appearance contributed to her becoming a household name in America and around the world beginning in the early nineteen-sixties, after which she enjoyed a wildly successful career collaborating with many fellow musicians (among them Harry Belafonte and Dizzy Gillespie) and as a solo artist in her own right.

In 1960, Makeba and her one-time husband, the musician Hugh Masekela, had their passports revoked and were exiled from their homeland for their fervent opposition to apartheid, and for Makeba’s appearance in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid documentary that she had travelled to Europe to help promote. Their records were banned, and Makeba was not even allowed to return for her mother’s funeral. She appeared, along with Masekela and a host of other South African artists—among them Youssou N’dour and the a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who have since gained much wider recognition—on Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 worldbeat album Graceland, a collaborative effort between a Western folk musician and a loose affiliation of South African artists who were, at the time, living under apartheid.

In a concert in support of the album in Zimbabwe, Simon celebrated “Mama Africa,” as Makeba was popularly known, and sang the African national anthem, “N’Kosi Sikeleli Africa (God Bless Africa),” with her and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Makeba, who had been displaced from her native land for more than thirty years, died of a heart attack at age 76, in 2008; it is to her memory, and to the memory of all the victims of apartheid, that the director Joe Berlinger’s new documentary, Under African Skies, about the making, the lasting impact, and the attendant political controversy of Graceland, is dedicated. The album’s silver jubilee last year occasioned Berlinger’s documentary; the film is partly a look back at Graceland’s creation and partly a celebration of its legacy, with Berlinger having travelled to Johannesburg to witness Simon’s exclusive anniversary concert with his one-time collaborators.

Graceland was a global phenomenon: it became a best-seller in the US—where it has been certified 5x Platinum—and sold millions of copies around the world. In New Zealand, it was on the charts for 71 weeks, and spent three weeks in November and December of 1986 at number one. It has, for whatever reason, particular resonance for the generation who came of age in its shadow, as well as to those who grew up with Simon & Garfunkel’s folkloric melodies ringing in their ears. The record has permeated the culture to such an extent that the icon which appears on its cover* now adorns skateboard decks (appearing here appropriately surrounded by other decks, uh… decked-out with a detail from the cover of the afrobeat-influenced band Talking Heads’ 1983 album Speaking in Tongues).

Further evidence of Graceland’s enduring, profound influence: in Like Crazy, Drake Doremus’ Sundance Grand-Jury-winning drama of young love by long-distance, the protagonists bond over the song “Crazy Love, Vol. II,” from the second side of the album. Ezra Koenig, the lead singer of the indie-rock band Vampire Weekend—which fashions its sound around baroque-pop and worldbeat styles and curates a preppy image—is open about the centrality of Graceland in influencing his work; this can be heard most clearly in the tracks “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Mansard Roof,” both from the band’s eponymous 2007 début record. (Before starting Vampire Weekend, during an exploratory period of experimentation with African music, Koenig went on tour with Dirty Projectors, who are also notable for their incorporation of African influences.) Appearing early-on in Under African Skies, Koenig says Graceland is evocative to him of the long road-trips he took with his family as a child. Deenah Vollmer, writing last year in the literary journal n+1, cannily notes that there are lyrics in “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes” that “remain the only Zulu you are likely to hear while shopping,” while Nell Boeschenstein at This Recording remarks that “Graceland at 25 has reached the echelon that boasts only the most rarefied classics.” Graceland, then, has never not been cool.

With its combination of slip-sliding fretless bass-lines and unmistakably ’80s drum-machine backing (at least on some tracks), the record at times sounds pretty much like a whole lot of other classic albums from the era. Linda Ronstadt sings backing vocals on the track that gives Berlinger’s documentary its name, and Chevy Chase famously appears in the video for “You Can Call Me Al.” (The “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” video takes almost the opposite approach, culturally, and Ronstadt was replaced in live performances of “Under African Skies,” in Zimbabwe at least, by Miriam Makeba.) Despite its wide appeal, the album isn’t bland pop by anyone’s definition: with the exception of the Cajun vibe on “All Around the World (or The Myth of Fingerprints),” courtesy of the Chicano-rock band Los Lobos, Graceland is almost exclusively afrobeat-inflected.

Some tracks, such as “Homeless,” are sung almost entirely by Ladysmith Black Mambazo—Simon appears, as Vollmer noted in her n+1 piece, only as something of an instructive verbal metronome, of sorts: “Somebody sing.” What was different about Graceland to previous white-people-‘appropriating’-Black-culture situations was the extent to which Simon involved his collaborators in its promotion. Not only did he give credit where it was due—five of the album’s eleven tracks list more than one composer and/or lyricist—but he also reprinted, in the album’s inner-sleeve liner notes, the original Zulu, untranslated (which is more than can be said for another formative album of my childhood, the soundtrack to The Lion King—it would’ve been great to know that Lebo M’s line “Nants ingonyama baghiti baba,” at the start of “The Circle of Life” means “Here comes a lion”).

In the summer of 1984, Simon found himself at a loose end. His album Hearts and Bones, which had been released the previous year, hadn’t fared so well in the charts, even as his 1982-3 world-tour reunion with Art Garfunkel had, naturally, been extremely well-received. (Hearts and Bones had in fact been envisioned as the first new Simon & Garfunkel record following the massive success of 1981’s Concert in Central Park.) A friend had given Simon a cassette-tape labelled gumboots: accordion jive vol. ii by a group called the Boyoyo Boys, which he found himself listening to on repeat. It was “Township Jive” or “Mbaqanga” music from the streets of Soweto. Simon decided he had to go to South Africa and record an album with these musicians. Problem was, he didn’t check with the African National Congress, and in fact actively flouted the UN’s cultural boycott—part of the same set of regulations that prohibited sporting contact, hence our own Springbok riots of just a few years earlier. Simon went anyway, and it is the political entanglement in which he soon found himself that Berlinger focuses on for the majority of Under African Skies.

The film is framed around a restorative conversation that took place between Simon and Dali Tambo, who founded the protest organisation Artists Against Apartheid in the year Graceland was recorded. Judging by the way the conversation begins, the two never actually met in 1985—they were merely in contact throughout the controversy generated by the album’s recording and subsequent tours. Simon admits fairly early on in the discussion that during the recording of the album in Johannesburg, he wasn’t fully aware of the political situation, or particularly enlivened to the realities of living under apartheid. He believed, as Harry Belafonte relays in the film, that “the power of art and the voice of the artist is supreme.” Berlinger neatly intercuts footage of Tambo and Simon’s conversation—in which Tambo explains that at the time he didn’t think it was correct for Simon to have come to South Africa, much less make an album with local musicians—with joyous, shining renditions of the album’s songs in preparation for the jubilee concert.

Some of the film’s best moments come in the middle, with archival footage of the recording sessions in Johannesburg, the mixing sessions in New York City, and the recording of “Homeless” at Abbey Road. Here, Simon goes to great lengths to explain that while he and his collaborators were surrounded by very real political tensions, the album was never intended to convey a political message about or an opinion on apartheid. Even though he came from the folk tradition, he’s not the sort of person who can write protest songs, he explains—in any case, that isn’t even what the South African musicians wanted to record. When he asked for a translation of the lyrics to the tune that would become “I Know What I Know,” General M.D. Shirinda, the songwriter, told him, “Remember the ’60s, when girls wore short skirts? Wasn’t that great?”

“That’s what the song was about,” Simon says. “It’s a pop song—these guys were singing pop songs.” While it was being mixed, Warner Bros announced that they would delay the album’s release by a few months (it was meant to come out in the spring of ’86), but Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo were already booked to appear on Saturday Night Live—so they went on anyway, foreigners and one of the city’s most beloved native sons performing a song no one had heard. Their part-a cappella live rendition of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” which has to be one of the most energetic, vibrant SNL musical performances ever, was greeted with a standing ovation.

Aside from interviews with the album’s many musicians, engineers, and producers, the film incorporates sound-bites from Quincy Jones, Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, and Paul McCartney—but many other interviewees are both more articulate and less harried-seeming than all of them. The composer Philip Glass, who wrote the one-minute coda on the closing track of Hearts and Bones, “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” appears in the film briefly, and, with David Byrne and Jon Pareles, the rock critic for the New York Times, provides some of the film’s most interesting commentary. Pareles, near film’s end, places Graceland on something of a pedestal vis-à-vis “early sampling”: “[Graceland] is a layered assemblage of places and ideas,” he says. This is a nice thought, but his very next comment—“…and, welcome to hip-hop!”—seems rather silly when you think that Simon’s album came out in 1986, and “Duck Rock,” for but one example, had come out some three years earlier. Peter Gabriel’s somewhat reductive comment earlier in the film that the album “helped people around the world think that there was a lot more to Africa than suffering,” is similarly simplistic. Byrne, though, rightly notes that Simon’s album distils something of the whole phenomenon of music, joining American pop with its African origins.

At root, this is a film about the relation of politics to art, but it is also an examination of a phenomenal record—one, in fact, that Simon still recognises as the most significant work of his career. (He would even attempt to repeat its success four years later with a sort-of sequel, the follow-up album The Rhythm of the Saints; it was not greeted with nearly the same rapturous praise.) As Simon says, Graceland helped to put a human face on apartheid, but it also elevated to the mainstream entire sub-genres of music that had been considered by many Westerners to be “third-world.” (It is perhaps to this end that the lyric “Maybe it’s the third world / Maybe it’s first time around” in “You Can Call Me Al” gravitates.) The album arguably almost single-handedly ushered in a new era in world music, and stands as a testament to the transformative, world-shrinking power of cross-cultural artistic collaboration. Music, says the guitarist Ray Phiri at the start of the film, is the closest thing he knows to religion: when it’s used in the right way, it can bring people closer and help formulate solutions. Graceland didn’t—couldn’t—‘solve’ the problem of apartheid, but it most definitely didn’t hinder progress, and Berlinger’s film celebrates that fact marvellously.

* The album’s credits note that the icon was provided courtesy of the Langmuir Collection at the Peabody Museum of Salem, MA., and photographed by Mark Sexton, but give no further details. Interestingly, on some original pressings—such as the New Zealand one I’m looking at right now—the icon appears on the reverse of the cover, swapped, perhaps mistakenly, with a blue-toned photograph of Simon that, on most other pressings and on the anniversary CD reissue, appears on the back.

The 2012 World Cinema Showcase runs from March 29–April 11 in Auckland; April 5–22 in Wellington; April 19–May 2 in Dunedin, and April 26–May 9 in Wellington.

For more coverage, browse the “World Cinema Showcase 2012” tag on this site, and for information on tickets and session times, visit the World Cinema Showcase website. You can also follow me, @insequential, and the @wcshowcase on Twitter (hashtag #wcs).