It was Paul Simon over politics in Zimbabwe

When it was over, Paul Simon sat in the empty concrete bleachers of Zimbabwe's main soccer stadium, in his T-shirt and denims, and smiled. ``It seems,'' he said in a bemused sigh more appropriate to a college professor than a pop star, ``that they loved it.''

Music met politics in Zimbabwe this weekend, and the music won. Paul Simon brought his ``Graceland'' album back to Africa. And Africa, without much regard to race or creed or color, clapped and danced and cheered him on.

It wasn't Woodstock. (There was less dope, fewer people, less legroom - and more clothing. Vendors peddled not only lime popsicles but biltong, southern Africa's answer to beef jerky. The MC addressed the crowd as ``comrades.'')

But if Max Yasgur's farm played host to a fleeting timeout from the political divisions of 1960s America, Rufaro Soccer Stadium did much the same for the violent conflicts that now wrack the southern tip of Africa.

Politics did set the venue. Mr. Simon and his black South African touring team allowed that it was a bit strange not to be able to take ``Graceland's'' melody and rhythm into the black South African townships from which they sprang. But two of Simon's co-stars, silky songstress Miriam Makeba and high-energy trumpeter Hugh Masekela, are acrid critics in exile of the South African government.

Besides, even if the government allowed ``Graceland'' home, the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee wouldn't. To do so, the logic goes, would violate the UN's cultural boycott against Pretoria. It was only days ago that the UN committee retreated from a move to blacklist Simon for having traveled to South Africa to record with black musicians there.

So the roadshow came to Harare - some 370 miles north of the South African frontier in the black African republic that, seven years ago, supplanted white-ruled Rhodesia.

If members of the UN committee (``whoever they are,'' Simon reflected) had wandered through the Rufaro crowd, they might well have cringed. Alongside Zimbabweans - black and white - were the gyrating forms of several thousand South Africans. Whites, mostly. Few blacks could afford the several days and some $200 required to hop a bus north to Harare. Round-trip air fare costs about $350.

With a wink from Zimbabwean officials (many of whom cheered Woodstock South from the VIP seats), the boycott collapsed for a weekend. Visas were granted with a smile. A longstanding ban on visits by South African-based reporters was put on hold. (Aware of the influx of fans from down South - and the yawning gap between official and black-market currency rates - a stadium announcer directed ``tourists with travelers checks'' to a mobile bank van at the edge of the field.)

Even South African officialdom seemed caught up in the spirit of ``Graceland.'' Saturday night, only hours after the first Rufaro concert, South Africa's usually progovernment television network aired a British TV special on Simon. It included a cut from the rock video version of ``Homeless.'' Of all the tracks, this one has the strongest political implications. The video briefly makes the implications explicit - with shots of what appears to be a forced removal of black shanty dwellers.

For a while, it seemed Simon in Africa might flop. The morning of the first concert, a columnist in Harare's Herald newspaper advocated ``gracefully boycotting Graceland in Concert'' as a way of ``struggling against apartheid.'' Even at the bargain price of five Zimbabwean dollars - about US$3 - only about 8,000 tickets had been sold for both days. But by the time the announcer introduced Simon (``Ladies and gentlemen, comrades and fans...''), the roughly 10,000 stadium seats were packed. Thousands more crammed the soccer field in front of the stage.

Like the album, the concert was not exactly South African music. It was a seamless fusion of Simon's trenchant folk-rock lyrics and township rhythms and harmony. The lyrics were visibly lost on much of the crowd: Even in Zulu, Sotho, or Shona, phrases such as ``turnaround jump-shot'' don't travel too well.

But the crowd, too, was a fusion.

There were whites in their late 30s, who adored Paul Simon back when Simon was half of Simon and Garfunkel, and Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. There were blacks who swayed and cheered to the music of ``Graceland'' - played almost as frequently in recent months on African radio stations as on American ones. There were South Africans, too, who came to Harare not only to see Paul Simon, but also his co-stars.

``I drove 16 hours from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Then I took a 19-hour bus to Harare,'' said one young visitor from down South. ``It was worth every hour - not only to see Simon and hear `Graceland,' but also Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, fellow citizens who cannot perform in our country.''

Not far away, Charon Lessing, a white Zimbabwean, stopped dancing just long enough to add a postscript. ``There have been other concerts here. Bob Marley came right after independence. Jimmy Cliff was here later. But there were maybe 20 white people at those concerts. I guess I didn't expect this kind of mix of people. It's wonderful!''

When Simon broke into ``You Can Call Me Al,'' many in the crowd sang along then demanded an instant encore, promptly delivered. When Ladysmith Black Mambazo - the 10-member township voice choir that helped create ``Homeless'' and the soulful ``Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes'' - appeared solo, the crowd shouted even louder. (``They always steal the show,'' quipped a tour official.) In an encore, Ladysmith kicked and danced through a routine that made the Temptations look flat-footed.

There were overtly political songs as well. Mr. Masekela, to a vaguely reggae beat, intoned a hymn to jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. The entire troupe (with Simon intermittently joining in) led the crowd in a rendition of Nkosi Sikelele Afrika - the unofficial anthem of South African black nationalists. (Many of the white South Africans in the crowd, fists raised, sang along. One of them remarked, with a self-deprecating smile, ``All of us South African lefties are here.'')

But in the end, Simon drew a less explicitly political moral from the show. ``I could see whites and blacks dancing together. There was a little black baby around a white neck. This is the way it is supposed to be,'' he remarked in an interview. ``And obviously, this is the way it can be.''

For a brief moment, he wondered aloud about taking the roadshow to South Africa. If the government did let Makeba and Masekela come along, he said, he'd love to go. If he were the South African government, moreover, he figured it would be a politically shrewd move to let the show in.

But then there is the UN. During his ultimately successful bid to argue that ``Graceland'' had violated no embargoes, Simon recalled, the committee chairman wouldn't even answer his phone calls. If he tried to perform in South Africa, in clear violation of the boycott rules, ``They'd blow me out of the water.''

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