“World Music” was not a term I was familiar with in 1986. The record stores I remember had three basic sections… Rock/Pop, Country/Folk and Classical. Sure, there were tiny outposts for Jazz/Blues and Soundtracks… and there was always a rack dedicated to Spoken Word shoehorned under the window AC, but the Big 3 was where all the action was.
The release that summer of Paul Simon’s Graceland changed all that:
It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard and appreciated non-western music before, or that Paul Simon was the first western musician or pop star to feature these foreign instruments and rhythms on a record. The difference was that this record seemed to celebrate the similarities and the differences in musical styles fairly equally. It was the antithesis of some of the overindulgent raga-fests I had previously cowered from and just, well, fun!
Side A is where most of the meat is, featuring four of the full on collaborative efforts with the African artists that inspired the endeavor. Side B, while still great, veers into Zydeco and Tex-Mex styles… which meld nicely with the Ladysmith Black Mambazo-ized tunes.
Apart from the music, I also remember there was some controversy surrounding this record. Critics claimed that it somehow benefited the ruling class in South Africa. Other than an occasional bumper sticker, I had no idea what apartheid even meant… until this record shown a spotlight on the issue.
It’s a theme that has played out time after time in my life; I have the world all figured out, I hear a piece of music that challenges my world view, my eyes open anew. Anyway, it seemed absurd to suggest that this introduction of the region’s music to much of the world strengthened apartheid… I’d argue that it more than likely, in at least some small way, hastened its undoing.
My midlife crisis, I dust of my vinyl records. His midlife crisis, this experiment he called Graceland, may have just helped change the world.