`Graceland's' grand finale. Discovering South African music, courtesy Paul Simon
New York — When Paul Simon decided last year that it would be fun to make a record with some South African pop musicians, he had no idea how far that project would go - not only musically, but politically, socially, and spiritually. That album, ``Graceland,'' not only won a Grammy and produced a couple of hit singles, but inspired a tour that has been a great example of brotherhood in action through the medium of music. After all, not only did Simon do his bit to help break down music performance barriers between the United States and South Africa, he also introduced a musical culture to thousands of people who previously had little or no acquaintance with South African music.
The Graceland Tour concerts at Radio City Music Hall here - the culmination of a European, US, and Zimbabwe tour that began Feb. 1 - were entirely sold out the first day tickets went on sale. The night I attended, Simon introduced the evening by saying that the concert was ``about South African music and `Graceland,''' and indeed it was, in that order. Simon himself, dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans, remained very much in the background throughout the concert and gave the South African musicians plenty of time to perform on their own.
In fact, the show was really a showcase for South African music, with some political statements here and there by himself and his guests, South African exiled musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Performing with (and without) Simon were the 10-man a cappella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and an exceptional backup band consisting of guitars, keyboards, saxophones, accordion, bass, drums, percussion, and three female backup singers.
Simon naturally did most of the songs from his ``Graceland'' album and did them with great passion and conviction. It was obvious that his time on the road with his fellow musicians has really solidified the music. The opening number, ``Township Jive,'' was truly thrilling and had the entire company on stage, including the amazing Mambazo group.
In fact, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, led by Joseph Shabalala, was the biggest hit of the evening, with their rich, deep voices, ringing harmonies, infectious rhythms, and catchy leg and foot movements. When they came out by themselves later on to do a segment of their own songs, the audience went absolutely wild. One critic pointed out that without Paul Simon, Radio City Music Hall would never have sold out for a group of South African musicians. True, but how wonderful that so many people had the chance to see and hear these great performers. Next time the hall might very well sell out without Simon - thanks to Simon.
Both Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela had portions of the show to themselves - a bit too long, but excellent nonetheless. Vocalist Makeba is a handsome, dignified performer, and Masekela is a jazz flugelhornist and trumpeter of considerable talent. He played, for the most part, against a smooth pop/rock background, but his bebop-inflected solos were inventive and exciting.
Altogether it was a joyous occasion, a musical success, and an affirmation of brotherhood and fellowship. On ``Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,'' near the end of the concert, Simon touched hands with each member of Ladyship Black Mambazo as they left the stage, and that simple gesture symbolized what this evening, and indeed the entire tour, was about.