Yesterday I had the privilege to see “Under African Skies,” a film by accomplished documentarian Joe Berlinger. The film features Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland and the political controversy that surrounded it. My husband John and I had front row seats at the MARC theatre for this trip down memory lane. Graceland was the music of our junior year in college and a favorite among our group of friends.
When Simon traveled to apartheid South Africa to make the album, he violated the cultural boycott then in place, upsetting the U.N., the ANC and the leadership of Artists Against Apartheid. Simon said that music transcended politics and that his goal was to collaborate with African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The results were amazing both in 1986 and again in 2011 when Simon returned to South Africa for a 25th anniversary reunion concert. The reunion was featured in the documentary along with archival footage of the original recording sessions and Graceland tour.
It was a shame that technical issues hampered the sound of the film, but Dolby technicians were able to remedy the problem after about 40 minutes, so that Simon’s music could shine in the second half. The soundtrack is rich with African harmony and rhythms, and with Simon’s lyrics and trademark voice layered on top, the result is pure joy. It’s no wonder this album is routinely included in lists of the greatest rock albums of all time, and it was such a gift to rediscover it here at Sundance. We’ll have to pull out the old vinyl when we get home!
Berlinger built the film’s narrative on a fascinating conversation between Simon and Dali Tambo, the head of Artists Against Apartheid. Simon told why he made made the album in spite of the cultural boycott and Tambo explained why Simon’s actions were hurtful to the cause in 1986. In the end, the two embraced and let bygones be bygones. As the credits rolled, the audience clapped along enthusiastically to Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes. I was tempted to dance in the aisles but confined myself to some major chair dancing:) Twenty five years later, Simon’s music still points us toward the grace and pure joy we all long for.