Over 30 years ago, Paul Simon went deep into the heart of South Africa to make the album Graceland.
His seventh studio album, Simon was dealing with the end of his marriage and depression, as well as a previous album that hadn’t done well. He was given a bootleg cassette of some South African folk music.
Travelling to South Africa, Simon spent two weeks recording with local musicians, working with local producer Hilton Rosenthal.
Many vocalists and musicians came into the garage/studio to collaborate with Simon, such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Boyoyo Boys Band.
Although there was a cultural ban against South Africa, Simon decided to pursue working with musicians. The resulting album was Graceland, his first attempt at mixing his style of music with South African rhythms into the emerging category of worldbeat.
Simon then brought back many tracks and worked with a variety of musicians in the US including Los Lobos, Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters, Linda Ronstadt and The Everly Brothers.
Warner Bros. was uninterested in the Simon project, more focused on their hot pop artists Madonna and Prince, and Simon spent a year from from October 1985 until June 1986 perfecting the album.
The first single, You Can Call Me Al, was released at the same time as the album, and controversy hit immediately with Artists United Against Apartheid, South Africa’s ANC and other groups calling out Simon for breaking the cultural ban on South Africa because of apartheid, the government’s racist law. Simon was placed on the UN blacklist because of the album, but was removed in January 1987.
Receiving excellent reviews from critics despite little support from Warner Bros., Graceland soared up the charts, sold 16 million copies worldwide at the time and gained Simon the 1987 Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Simon would receive praise from the South African musicians, especially Hugh Masekela, for focusing on them, and ignoring the government in his creation of this collaborative album. Masekela and Miriam Makeba travelled with Simon on tour, and led to multiple documentaries about the music and musicians.