Pioneering world music

John Kruth wrote for Observer Music on 08/25/16:

“Being a pioneer is a messy job. There is no job description or easy-to-use guidebook available on how to break new ground. Intuition, improvisation and blind luck are all essential to the process. There’s a lot of stumbling involved and despite whatever precautions the curious interloper might take, a few innocents always seem to wind up heavily bruised or crushed underfoot in the process.

Long before the release of his 1987 Grammy Award-winning album, Graceland, Paul Simon was one of the earliest “pioneers” of world music, a genre which, until the sudden Bossa nova and calypso crazes of the late ’50s/early ’60s, consisted mostly of field recordings of indigenous peoples, listened to and appreciated primarily by academics.

Simon’s interest in exotic sounds began back in 1965 on a tour of the U.K., where he befriended the British guitarist/folklorist Martin Carthy (The Watersons, Steeleye Span) from whom he learned (and appropriated without crediting) his stunning arrangement of “Scarborough Fair,” a song which, thanks to The Graduate soundtrack, became synonymous with the ’60s.

Years later, Simon and Garfunkel would popularize “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” originally written in 1913 by Daniel Alomia Robles, which Simon translated from Spanish. While most people assumed Simon had written the lilting melody and evocative lyrics, he’d once more put his personal touch on a song commonly known to Peruvians as their “second national anthem.” In the music world this type of “borrowing” is commonly known as “the folk process.” It was nothing new; Dylan did it all the time (just compare his “With God On Our Side” with the Irish ballad “The Patriot Game”).

“Everybody’s lifting all the time,” Simon later rationalized to a reporter from American Songwriter magazine. “That’s the way music grows and is shaped.”

The release of his first solo album, Paul Simon, in January, 1972, revealed the influence of reggae (a relatively new style at the time that was about to bust out world-wide) with Paul’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” which he recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. Much to his credit, Simon’s vocal performance bore only the slightest trace of the island’s infectious accent, unlike a trio of British bottle-blonds called the Police who would soon forge a white-washed hybrid of punk and reggae that propelled them to worldwide fame.

The album also featured “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” built on the giddy rhythm of a talking drum played by Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, best known for his work with Miles Davis, and on Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. Another exotic touch came with Simon’s song “Duncan,” which showcased Los Incas (who had earlier turned Simon on to Andean music with their rendition of “El Condor Pasa”) playing wood flutes and a small nylon-string ukulele-like instrument known as the charango, made most often from an empty armadillo shell.

Fast forward to 1985. Paul Simon, despite the failure of his second marriage (to Carrie Fischer) and the disappointing sales of his latest release, Hearts and Bones, is joyfully scat singing along to a cassette tape from South Africa called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II. The singer/songwriter experienced the same charge of inspiration from Mbaqanga music (better known on the streets of Soweto as “Township Jive”) as he once gleaned from street corner Doo-wop.

Simon later said that upon first hearing he felt “a strange familiarity” with the music, an “almost mystical affection.” But no matter how it stirred his soul, playing Mbaqanga, for a white American musician at the time was forbidden fruit…

…Despite whatever grousing over Simon’s creative process, the beauty of Graceland continues to endure 30 years later…”

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