American rock meets its African roots

In the age of the single download, Jeff Harford rediscovers the album.

In 1986, one Graceland became two: a mansion and a musical milestone. Paul Simon symbolically scratched his initials into the limestone walls of Elvis Presley's Memphis home then threw open the wrought-iron gates to reintroduce American rock 'n' roll to its African roots.

Simon took a bit of stick for his decision to experiment with the mbaqanga, or ''township jive'', that had first piqued his interest in the summer of 1984. Some saw his engagement with black South African musicians as a violation of the international cultural boycott set in place to protest apartheid, but time and the worldwide exposure that flowed for his collaborators, vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo especially, have served to temper any disgruntlement.

In many ways, Graceland embodies the spirit of desegregation, though none of its songs are directly political. Simon embraces new rhythms, melodies and instruments for what they can lend his lyrics, not as ambassadors of place or race. Hence the accordion-led Famo sound that Lesotho band Tao Ea Matsekha brings to The Boy In The Bubble is a vehicle for taking a panoramic view of the age of ''miracle and wonder'', and the distinctive guitars of Shangaan dance music that weave through I Know What I Know are the background for small talk in a distinctly Western cultural setting.

You Can Call Me Al can be read as being similarly positioned, though the final verse ties Simon to his first experiences in South Africa.

Simon's reservoir of top-shelf support musicians isn't limited to Africans, and nor is the musical flavour solely South African: Linda Ronstadt appears in Under African Skies, the Everly Brothers sing harmony in the title track, and Zydeco and Tex-Mex influences are explored in the closing numbers. But it is impossible to separate Graceland from the profound influence of the vibrant, ebullient music that kick-started Simon's journey of discovery, or from its deserved reputation as a world music masterpiece.

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