Joe Berlinger: Under African Skies

Paul Simon’s 1986 album, “Graceland”, is a pivotal album and more than anything it revealed to us western mono-culture consumers that South Africa is a rich source of rhythms, harmonies and just plain good grooves. Also, the album and the following tour gave musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Joseph Shabalala, Ray Phiri and Baghiti Kumalo a chance to make the world listen to their (and Simon’s) music.

But since the record was made during the embargo of South Africa, ANC and Artists Against Apartheid were adversaries to Simon’s project – although both Simon and the involved black musicians insisted on the collaboration.

In 2011 Paul Simon returned to South Africa to meet the old gang and to do a 25th anniversary concert. This film, quite traditionally, consists of scenes from the rehearsals, archive footage of the old recordings and concerts, the harsh life under apartheid plus recent interviews with the main characters. Simon himself comes across both enthusiastic (albeit a bit old) and somewhat tired of the old controversy while the other musicians are just a treat to look at and listen to.

There is an important dialogue on a sofa between Simon and founder of AAA, Dali Tembo, where they discuss the political implications, and – in my mind a key scene – Simon also tells us about a meeting he had with ANC. Back then, ANC wanted the black musicians to not go on the tour, and Simon therefore asked the politicians: “Is this the government you will be? A government who wants to control artists?” Powerful stuff, to say the least.

But the film pays an equal attention to the music related topics. For instance, we hear about Simon’s problems with getting his words to fit when he returned to New York with the tapes. He had to re-listen and re-analyze the complex patterns of the instruments.

However, we as an audience aren’t allowed to really listen. Even though the film is packed with music, we mostly get to hear a few seconds before someone talks, and while it seems completely unnecessary to have people like Whoopi Goldberg and Paul McCartney in the film, others like Harry Belafonte and Philip Glass make more sense. It’s always tricky to fit music into a storyline, but apart from that the film is structured rather cleverly.

It is not cinematographically awe-inspiring but certainly inspiring in other ways; especially if you are just slightly interested in Paul Simon, music, culture, politics or… the world.

Joe Berlinger: Under African Skies, 2012. Watched at Cinemateket, Copenhagen.

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Mikkel Stolt
Mikkel Stolt
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