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Music Review: Paul Simon – Graceland [25th Anniversary Edition – CD/DVD]

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This is not going to be an objective review. Graceland is my favorite album of all time. This CD/DVD package celebrating its 25th Anniversary is simply stellar, with not only the CD but extra bonus tracks, including the demo version of “Homeless,” “You Can Call Me Al,” and “Crazy Love” plus an extra early version of “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints,” and Paul Simon’s explanation of “The Story of Graceland.”

This anniversary package also includes the amazing documentary,Under African Skies, which tells the story of how Simon traveled to South Africa to record most of the songs on Graceland with extremely talented South African musicians. More information and photos are provided in the enclosed booklet.

The musicians were delighted to have an opportunity to let the world hear their music, but the trip and the recording were politically controversial. There was a cultural ban in South Africa at the time because of apartheid, and white musicians were not supposed to come to the country without permission from the rebel leaders. But Simon did not believe that musicians should have to ask permission to perform together, and he did not do so.

Many people criticized Simon and even the South African musicians for this decision, but this was not a case where a white musician came in and took advantage of the South African people. It was a true collaboration between a white American performer and native musicians.

Graceland changed the way many Americans viewed South Africa. It gave the people faces and voices. We all knew about the horrors of apartheid, but many of us pictured poor, ignorant people living in shacks. We sympathized, but we did not empathize. Hearing the incredible musicianship and watching the joy and exuberant dancing of the African performers on Saturday Night Live made them real people for us and made us care.

In Under African Skies, we get the full story of what the album meant to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Harry Belafonte, as well as its impact on the South African musicians and on the anti-apartheid movement and on Paul Simon himself.

In both the CD and the DVD, those of us who love the music get to experience it again, and new listeners will get to discover the magic.

While “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is one of my two favorite songs in the world, the entire recording is full of wonderful images, like “the bomb in the baby carriage,” “the baby with the babbling heart,” and “the human trampoline.” Simon’s style makes the whole CD feel like an intimate conversation about serious situations with a close friend, backed by incredible, joyous music.

Not all of the songs were recorded with South African artists. Simon recognized a similar sound in music from Louisiana and from Mexican-American music, so he recorded “That Was Your Mother” with Good Rockin’ Dopsie and The Twisters, and “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints” with Los Lobos. While “Graceland” featured South African musicians and the music was recorded in Johannesburg, the background vocals were provided by The Everly Brothers in Los Angeles, again reinforcing the collaborative nature of the work.

Graceland proves the power of music to overcome politics. My favorite moment in Under African Skies is during “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” when all of the musicians dance in a circle with Simon in the middle, and as each passes, they slap hands with him. That gesture of friendship and affection was so poignant, and says everything about the message of Graceland : “I’ve a reason to believe/We all will be received/In Graceland.”

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.