Directed by: Joe Berlinger | 108 minutes | documentary, biography, music, history | Featuring: Paul Simon, Maya Angelou, Okeyerama Asante, Harry Belafonte, David Byrne, Tony Cedras, Peter Gabriel, Philip Glass, Whoopi Goldberg, Roy Halee, Quincy Jones, Vusi Khumalo, Bakithi Kumalo, Koloi Lebona, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela , Paul McCartney, Lorne Michaels, Sonti Mndebele, Isaac Mtshali, Jon Pareles, Ray Phiri, Barney Rachabane, Hilton Rosenthal, John Selolwane, Wally Serote, Joseph Shabalala, Dali Tambo, Oprah Winfrey
Paul Simon reinvented himself with the 1986 album ‘Graceland’. After his great successes with Art Garfunkel in the sixties (and early seventies), he also managed to achieve quite a few successes solo. In the eighties his popularity faded and although his album ‘Hearts and Bones’ (1983) was hailed by critics, the general public was not charmed by it. As a result, Simon was able to work on a new, experimental project in relative silence. The New York singer surprised friend and foe with ‘Graceland’, an album in which he ingeniously fused Western pop music and traditional African songs. Graceland was a resounding success. It reached # 1 on the UK Albums Chart and # 3 on the US Billboard 200. It won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1986 and the title track won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1988. But against all that success is also the enormous controversy that the record caused. It is precisely this contrast that ‘Under African Skies’ (2012) is about, the documentary made in honor of the 25th anniversary of one of the most prominent records of the eighties.
Documentary maker Joe Berlinger takes the singer back in time, to the origin of ‘Graceland’ and the uproar that the record caused. In addition, Simon returns to South Africa for the first time in years, where he re-meets the musicians he worked with and prepares with them for the anniversary concert in honor of the album’s 25th anniversary. Simon was inspired in the early eighties by a music cassette from the Boyoyo Boys, a South African music group. He saw something in the way of making music with them and left for South Africa for two weeks. He also did not last longer, because he immediately noticed the racial tension. He ignored the advice of colleague Harry Belafonte to contact the ANC first; he felt that the voice of the artist was more important than that of politics.
Music producer Koloi Lebona helped him find artists, as he saw in the collaboration an opportunity to make African music more mainstream. Guitar virtuoso Ray Phiri, the government-persecuted band Stimela and Lesotho-based traditional accordionist Forere Motloheloa, among others, were invited to participate. The songs were first played in the studio after long experimentation. Back in America, Simon started writing the lyrics. This was difficult as the rhythms were different from what he was used to. He avoided making political lyrics (unlike, for example, Peter Gabriel who sang about Steve Biko’s fate). After this, the band Ladysmith Black Mambazo came over to New York City to finish the album. After the release of ‘Graceland’, which, incidentally, was received lyrically by both the press and the public, Paul Simon was exposed to fierce criticism. He had ignored the general boycott against South Africa, which had been introduced because the country was suffering from the apartheid regime, and he was not thanked for it. He was even accused of exploitation. There were also disapproving voices from the ANC: foreman Oliver Tambo, among others, protested strongly against Simon’s visit to South Africa. But Simon was not deterred; he continued to believe in the power of music. The worldwide tour he took with the African musicians – including big stars like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, both of whom had been banned from their homeland because of their political messages. had now joined the collective – was dominated by threats and bomb threats. At the same time, it also generated additional publicity for the injustice in South Africa and marked the breakthrough of African music in the Western world.
‘Under African Skies’ is largely lyrical proof that music actually brings people together. Paul Simon looks a bit naive when he admits face to face with one of his former critics that he hadn’t been involved in politics at all when he came up with the idea of working with South African musicians, and you are somewhere inclined to believe him in that. even if you know that the country was on fire at the time and because of the reprehensible regime that ruled it, it was banned from the world economy as well as the cultural and sporting world. The new encounters with old musical friends are heartwarming; Simon and for example Joseph Shabalala (front man of Ladysmith Black Mambazo) are real soul mates. And that while they initially approached each other somewhat suspiciously. More uncomfortable – and therefore actually more interesting – is the confrontation he has with Dali Tambo, son of Oliver Tambo, one of Simon’s greatest critics at the time. He accuses the singer of offering opportunities to individuals, while the people were weighed down by the dictatorship. Simon’s reply is that artists are often used as legitimacy for a regime, but he also apologizes for his lack of insight.
Other people involved, including almost all the musicians still alive who played a role on the album, and other artists who were influenced by the record (including the New York band Vampire Weekend and frontman David Byrne of Talking Heads, who incidentally years before Simon experimented with African beats), are discussed. Oprah Winfrey explains why ‘Graceland’ is her all-time favorite album. Because this album has not only left its mark musically. Besides an extremely fascinating look at a crucial chapter in (recent) music and world history, ‘Under African Skies’ is also a great concert film. Plenty of time is made available for jam sessions (then and now) by the musicians and for fragments of television performances (‘Saturday Night Live’) and concert fragments.