25 Years of Graceland: The "World Music" Spark

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Over the past 25 years, no American album has changed the world-music landscape more than Paul Simon’s Graceland. Initially lauded as the folk singer’s comeback record, it made a cultural impact far greater than anyone could’ve possibly guessed. His album integrated American pop, rock and folk songwriting with traditional South African musical styles. By no means was this the first time that Western and non-Western cultures intersected, but Graceland was a watershed moment where world music began to emerge from being a series of isolated musical pockets to an institutionalized transnational music scene.

Graceland came out just as the genre of world music was becoming internationally accepted. Prior to the late ’80s, only a select few non-Western genres such as reggae, Afro-Cuban and salsa found their way to record stores on a regular basis worldwide. Most other non-Western styles of music weren’t available in the manner that they are today to mass consumers—complete with its own section at nearly every record store. Following its release, Graceland sparked demand for non-Western music.

Simon recorded the songs with numerous black South African musicians and groups in their homeland, breaking a contentious cultural boycott against the country due to the national apartheid regime. He blended several traditional South African musical styles such as Mbaqanga and Isicathamiya with pop and rock, creating a unique sound that helped revitalize his career with tracks that included “Graceland,” “You Can Call Me Al” and “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.” His seminal album presented listeners with opportunity to hear music that was simultaneously familiar and new, conventional and exotic—providing them with a view into an unfamiliar culture without entirely leaving their musical comfort zones.

Despite major record label doubts for a record this eclectic, it sold more than 14 million copies, becoming his best-selling solo album. Simon also netted a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. In 2007, the United States National Recording Registry added Graceland to their index of 325 recordings which “highlight the richness of the nation’s audio legacy.”

But that success, while benefitting both the songwriter and the cultures presented on the album to certain degrees, has come with some scrutiny and criticism. Although the collaborating South African artists benefited on some level by being a part of the Graceland recording process, Paul Simon largely reaped the benefits. No one doubts that Simon led the project as the album’s primary songwriter and gave South African artists their appropriate songwriting credits, but the process in which he loosely incorporated South African culture into his own work has been called into question.

In particular, he’s been accused of being a cultural tourist—extracting just enough from another culture to make his work more interesting, but doing so without fully or properly immersing himself into the full traditions of those musical styles. In essence, Simon presented a watered-down, commercially appealing versions of rich traditions—thereby stripping it of some of its cultural value when sharing it with the world at large.

But despite any cultural exploitation that occurred, the album’s overall influence was largely positive. The record’s groundbreaking success opened the doors for a flood of non-Western artists to gain worldwide recognition and acceptance. Listeners who’d gained awareness of non-Western acts largely because of Graceland soon developed a taste for more exotic and unfamiliar music previously unexposed to them.

A spawn of similar collaborations followed as Peter Gabriel, Ry Cooder and David Byrne delved into other underexposed musical cultures. Reissued collections of older musicians’ catalogs such as Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Toure and Franco occurred due to the widespread demand for these musical legends and their influential works. A generation of artists including Femi Kuti, Youssou N’Dour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Tinariwen emerged as internationally acclaimed musicians—touring around the world as champions of their respective sub-genres. World music’s geographic barriers broke down in no small part thanks to Graceland’s unexpected breakthrough.

Not only did Graceland pave the way for non-Western artists to receive international recognition, but it also broadened the musical horizons of Western musicians. A new generation of songwriters heard Graceland and other previously isolated genres for the first time, opening the floodgates to a myriad of new musical influences. In the past decade, artists including (but far from limited to) Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors, Abigail Washburn, Beirut, Devotchka, David Wax Museum, Calexico and Man Man have all explicitly incorporated music that falls under the world music umbrella into their own sounds. This hybridization of Western and non-Western music likely would have occurred at some point anyway, but Graceland propelled this to take place on a larger scale than would’ve happened otherwise.

Graceland continues to age well as both a definitive recording as well as an interesting look at the complex themes that run through world music, culture and identity. As the next 25 years pass, these issues will only continue to become more complicated as the internet makes music from all ends of the world even more accessible. Instances of cultural appropriation will continue to manifest themselves into modern music, just as they have for the past quarter century when Graceland sparked a change in the way music and culture intersect at the international level.