My first memory of Graceland is at age six, dancing with my mother to ‘Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes’ in our garden in England. For me it represented the far-off, exotic land where she was born.
I hadn’t yet been to South Africa, but she’d play me Graceland and tell me about her home in kwaZulu-Natal – the sugar cane farm, the rolling hills and the hot, humid air. Listening to Graceland let me dream, it was my imaginary window onto a world I did not yet know.
Fifteen years later I found myself – a recent journalism graduate – on a press trip in the midst of Zululand. My mother had unfortunately passed away, but there I was…back in her world, travelling north from Durban through a land where mud huts speckle the hills and acacia trees are makeshift bus stops.
It was here that I first met Ladysmith Black Mambazo – the African a-capella group who helped co-write Graceland with Paul Simon. They’d been appointed as tourism ambassadors for the province, and we had the humbling privilege of having them join our media junket.
I distinctly remember the first time I watched them perform live…under a big white marquee, pitched on the lofty rural highlands of Eshowe (the once colonial capital of Zululand). They had me silent and spellbound listening to the lyrics of ‘Homeless’. I felt as if their words were reverberating through me…like when music so powerful seems to melt your inside. It made me think of that day of dancing in the garden…
“Somebody say ih hih ih hih ih, somebody sing hello, hello, hello”
Founding member Joseph Shabalala has an infectious smile, he’s the kind of guy who can’t help but break out into song mid-speech. And when you talk to him about Graceland his eyes light up with a liberating glint…
We’d started entering local singing competitions and we got so good that people began calling us Mambazo – it means axe in Zulu and a word used to describe our ability to ‘chop down’ the competition. We got a local recording contract and then Paul Simon heard about us…He got in contact with us and travelled to Africa to record the album Graceland….When we collaborated it was a dream come true – that’s when we realised we were going to make it in the world – Joseph Shabalala.
Graceland went on to become a Grammy Award winning, multi platinum selling album – listened and loved by the world-over. Made in the apartheid era, Paul Simon broke a cultural boycott – sanctioned on South Africa by the international community – to travel to the country and collaborate with black artists. What emerged was a sound unheard of by that same international community – the sweet rhythm and melody of African harmony meets southern Louisiana exploded onto the record shelves. A new genre was made – ‘world music’.
It was Graceland that brought the sounds of South Africa from under the fray – it is a music that has swirled inside my head since age six – ‘these are the days of miracle and wonder’ he sang – Graceland let me imagine a land I never knew and cherish memories of people I will never forget. And twenty five years since that game-changing album entered the world – Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo are doing it again – with their first reunion tour gig kicking off this weekend in England, the country we first met.
Read my full interview with Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a previous edition of Safari here.