Paul Simon made a virtually unheralded appearance at the Sundance Film and Music Festival on its opening day in London to answer audience questions about the documentary film “Under African Skies,” which follows his return to South Africa 25 years after he travelled there to record it with local musicians, thus breaking a UN-sanctioned cultural boycott aimed at bringing down apartheid.
Simon was at the centre of massive controversy back then, though the argument was a complex one: “Graceland” was and is widely considered one of the greatest albums in modern music history. And it provided a massive boost and a global profile for the South African musicians who joined with Simon to record it – the remarkable vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the phenomenal guitarist Ray Phiri.
“Under African Skies,” by American director Joe Berlinger, gives a good airing to both sides of the argument. It shows warm-hearted scenes of Simon reuniting with his fellow “Graceland” musicians and rehearsing with them for a forthcoming reunion tour. But Berlinger also arranged for Simon to meet Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the late African National Congress (ANC) president Oliver Tambo. He is still convinced Simon was wrong to break the cultural boycott – and tells him so on camera.
A quarter of a century on, the argument still rumbles – as Simon discovered when he appeared after the rapturously received screening of “Under African Skies.” He was asked whether he regretted his actions in visiting South Africa and recording the album there.
“I have no regrets – because there’s a happy outcome,” Simon said. “And the musicians wanted to get their music out there in the world.”
Harry Belafonte was interviewed for the film and says he advised Simon to contact the ANC before he visited South Africa to inform them of his plans for “Graceland.” “But the ANC is a political party,” Simon told the Sundance audience. “Part of their agenda was – you have to ask us. My point was – why not ask musicians what they think about the cultural boycott?
“Political parties have an agenda – they want to gain power and stay in power. (The ANC) stood for the right thing, but they wanted to have the power of the government.”
The audience member who questioned Simon most closely did not identify himself. But he is Jon Blair, a South African-born film director based in Britain. His 1983 film about Oskar Schindler was acknowledged by Steve Spielberg as source material for his Schindler’s List a decade later. And in 1996 Blair won a best documentary Oscar for his film Anne Frank Remembered.
At Sundance London, Blair, who made a point of stressing he had observed the cultural boycott, challenged Simon to say if he would have done anything different. Again, Simon barely budged. “I did not vigorously pursue somebody telling me not to go,” he conceded. “But all I heard was ‘yes, come and play with us.’ The ANC did not confer with their own musicians.”
Simon also insisted that his memory of conversations with Belafonte about his South African visit differed from Belafonte’s own.
However Simon’s view that the “Graceland” album was ‘a happy outcome’ seemed to coincide with the views of the majority of the audience. And though it’s hard to view the controversy entirely as water under the bridge, it’s significant that “Under African Skies” ends with Simon apologising to Dali Tambo for any hurt he might have caused, Tambo expresses his admiration and love for Simon – and then the two men hug.