Listen to this track by singer-songwriter, folk-rock pioneer, and world-music promoter Paul Simon. It’s the album-track “Gumboots”, which among other things going for it, features the Afro-pop stylings of The Boyoyo Boys from South Africa. Another thing this song has going for it of course is one of the best lyrical marriage proposals in pop music history: “why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute?”
Paul Simon was lauded for his 1986 Graceland LP, off of which this track is taken. Coming back from a three-year recording hiatus, Simon married his interest in folk music to (among other styles) African pop music, creating a highly textured and idiosyncratic album that captured the imaginations of the critics and the record buying public. But, he also took some flak, too. Some leveled some pretty heavy allegations against the project, deeming it to be a product of cultural imperialism, and an implied dismissal of the anti-Apartheid boycott at the time .
The song was originally an instrumental by the Boyoyo Boys, which Simon heard and was fascinated by. It captured his imagination enough to write lyrics to the song, sparking a project which would provide something of a path to a comeback album. That path would eventually frame South Africa as a rich musical hotbed, despite the political unrest for which it had been known since the National Party put the deliberately racist Apartheid system in place in 1948.
As for the resulting song itself, there is nothing like it in Western pop music, with jubliant sax lines against hyperactive percussion and fidgety accordion lines. It’s a joyful, happy tune, derived from a country which, at the time, wasn’t so joyful. I guess the closest style to which it might be compared is New Orleans Zydeco, a style that developed many thousands of miles away. It’s hard to say which style influenced which first, or even if the two styles developed completely independently. It’s a mystery!
The point is, what works for a song, just works. It doesn’t ultimately matter where it comes from, even if the origins are fascinating to trace. As far as cultural imperialism goes, to me music has always thrives best when cultures mix. This is not exploitation, it’s evolution. For Simon’s part, he was making a record characterized by textures that interested him at the time, which is not really a radical approach to making an album. As such, the album features many African musicians and their respective styles, but also features Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, Adrian Belew, and Los Lobos, among others.
Many of the South African musicians he worked with to help him get the sound he needed must have most certainly seen the advantage of having a prominent Western musician as an ambassador. Their musical traditions, which hadn’t received a fraction of the attention it would get upon the reception of the Graceland LP, were as important to them as a thing to promote as the album was to Simon. And arguably, the eye of the world may not have focused so keenly on the corruption of the Apartheid system in South Africa, if not for the exposure that country received, at least in part, because of this album.
Check the link for more information about Paul Simon’s Graceland album and how it was made.