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Secret Simon

by Suede / 02.08.2011

Back Stage: July 28, 10:45pm, Johannesburg, South Africa. Hugh Masekela’s Trumpet

Paul Simon returns to Graceland, the album that was created and recorded mostly in South Africa in 1985. At the height of apartheid, American folk musician, Paul Simon ignored the international cultural boycott and came to work in South Africa with the likes of Hugh Masekela, Ray Phiri, Joseph Shabalala, and many other prominent musicians from the continent to create what would eventually become the defining commercial success of his career. It earned him a number of accolades including the 1986 Grammy for Album of the Year and 1987 Grammy for Record of the Year for the title track, “Graceland”.

And now, Paul Simon has returned to South Africa to film a documentary on the 25th anniversary of that landmark album, tentatively titled, Back To Graceland.
Simon’s visit to the country is being kept very hush hush and only spoken about in private party conversations over roaming platters of tempura prawn hors d’oeuvres. Information is selectively shared by those in the know.
“Hey Suede, it’s really hush hush, but you heard Paul Simon is in town, right? He’s doing a gig tonight. It’s on the low. Only a few key people know about it.” He smiled and knowingly swirled his champers and signalled the waiter for another chance at the brie and caramelized onion chompers.

My Twitter feed revealed my well fed source to be on the right track.
RT @PaulThackwray: Cant believe I get to see Paul Simon perform live tonight… and that’s about all I can say about that 🙂

My source continued through bites of meat on a stick: “Listen Suede this is a big deal, mate. Not for everyone is getting in. Hell, I’m going in as Ray Phiri’s guitar case carrier. The guest list is tighter than Princess Charlene’s escape plan. But if anybody can get in Suedie it’s you.” He nudged me in the ribs before disappearing into the crowd, following a platter of bacon wrapped salmon.

The industry, worldwide, prides itself on guest lists, limited access and informing you that, “I’m sorry sir, you don’t have the proper credentials.” For some reason, I never seem to have the proper credentials to be on the A-list or receive the invite. In fact, I’m usually the “sir,” in those, “excuse me sir please stand back for these guests who were invited,” but somehow I also have a Forest Gump-like knack for ending up in the most amazing situations. And tonight was one of those.

Hugh Masekela’s signature “Stimela” train hoot still electrified the air as I climbed the final stairs and was seated in the last few rows of the small theatre. The audience simultaneously exploded with applause as I took what was the only available seat left in the house. I had arrived at the “Undisclosed Location” – really SABC’s newly renovated M1 Studios – just in time to witness Paul Simon take the stage and perform the signature tracks from the Graceland album, “Diamonds” and “You can call me Al”.

Most of the players from the original recording formed the backline of his 10 piece band including bra Hugh and Ray Phiri, who were arranged across the massive M1 stage, while the entire gathering of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, flanked Paul Simon at center stage.
Upon entering, I half expected to find the small framed Simon of yesteryear; the dark mop top of tussled hair and the boyish face with the expression frozen in an emotion somewhere between confused wonderment and joyous naiveté. Instead there stood a grey haired elder, but with the divine voice of young man who could be a lead in his high school presentation of Alice in Wonderland.

He bounced around at the edge of the stage, like the rest of the crowd, he was taken by the music. All the while, Simon skillfully summoned the performers, with slight hand signals, 2-3-4 counts to bra Hugh in the horn section, who blasted on that horn like Joshua in the battle of Jericho; 5-6-7 move a little forward bra Ray the cameras need to see you. All while LadySmith went through their signature vernacular sing song and associated gestures. Yes Joseph Shabalala can still get that leg up over his head!
It was as if time had robbed them of their youth only in their physical appearance. Their gifts, their wondrous gifts remained untouched and worked together in harmony.

Backstage I shook Paul Simon’s hand in passing. He was still filming for his documentary and being followed by a ratchet of handlers, lights, sound and camera men. His train paused behind him and in that brief moment we shared a smirk and I was tempted to say, “welcome home!” But by the reception that evening, I’m sure he already realizes he is.
Graceland is number 81 on the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. And that evening at M1 Studios is in the upper echelon of my favorite all time live music concert experiences.

We may come and go, but good music remains. It is eternal.

*Image © Suede.

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