Beyond `Graceland's' magic. S. African blacks find antidote to strife in song
Johannesburg — Under its folk-rock gloss, Paul Simon's Grammy-winning ``Graceland'' conveys more about black South Africans - the suffering and jealousies, promise and pride - than a year of news headlines. More than ever, South African blacks find in song an antidote to the dislocations of poverty, urbanization, tribal division - and political violence. Mr. Simon has coated the sounds of black South Africa with studio polish, and his own American lyrics. Still, the rhythm and melody of the black townships, the tribal countryside, the mines, shine through.
``People ask me about `black South African music,''' a Soweto percussionist said on hearing of Simon's Grammy for the year's best album. ``What a question! In the Transvaal [Province] alone, we have all different strains of music.''
There is music to dance by in the drinking houses of the townships. There is the soulful mix of church melody, tribal praise-singing, and what Zulus call Ingom' Ebusuku - night-dancing music - that followed black migrants of the 1940s from the countryside to the mines or city slums.
There is music that celebrates tribal traditions which still distinguish - or divide - the blacks. And there is music that weaves tribal roots and 1980s' political militancy into a cry for black unity and power.
On ``Graceland,'' as in much of black South Africa, explicitly political music is the exception. The politics of men like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the voice choir that accompanies Simon on ``Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes'' and ``Homeless,'' is intentionally indirect. In Zulu, the style is called isicatamiya - ``the sneak attack.''
Like America's blues greats, Ladysmith sings less of the grand issues of politics than of individuals' attempts to cope with poverty, sadness, discrimination, and loss.
The tone is a mix of the voice choirs of the old mission schools and tribal harmonies in which separate voices dart suddenly in and out.
If its appeal rests largely with blacks who, like lead singer Joseph Shabalala, flocked to mines or city slums after World War II, others among Simon's song-mates speak the ``township jive'' of sprawling segregated townships like Soweto.
Before Soweto, there was Sophiatown. On the western edge of expanding Johannesburg, it was a place where tens of thousands of blacks, and poor whites, lived in a vibrant, sometimes violent community reminiscent of old-time Harlem. Black youths emulated the jazz greats - and gangsters - of America and fused its sounds with the haunting melodies and surprise strikes found in Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
As apartheid made segregation the law, and promoted poor whites' interests against encroachment by a flood of black laborers, Sophiatown was razed in favor of sprawling black suburbs like Soweto. The disappearance of a sense of urban community, and new militancy, among blacks growing up in townships added a rawness, anger, and energy to township jazz.
Few musicians better convey its power - refined, in parts, on ``Graceland'' - than guitarist Ray Phiri's group, Stimela.
Before Simon, others brought black South African music to the world. Black artists like Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba left to work abroad. White musician David Coplan wrote a meticulously researched and readable history of black music and drama, called ``In Township Tonight!'' Western visitors, too, recorded with local blacks.
But, says Mr. Masakela, ``They left behind not so much as a guitar string.''
Simon's 4 million-seller seems of a different ilk. When asked how he feels about Simon, Mr. Phiri relates the joy of seeing the New York Times headline South African music.
Some black artists here are less rhapsodic. ``Simon will make most of the money,'' a member of a Soweto jazz group charges. He voices doubts that the afterglow of Simon's triumph will last long enough to provide a solid boost to local musicians.
But Lloyd Ross - who runs Shifty Records, an energetic local promoter of avant-garde music - disagrees. ``It can only do good,'' he maintains. ``Anyone who says different simply has his head in the sand.''
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.