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Under African Skies

Under African Skies

Released 22 June 2012
Director Joe Berlinger

Paul Simon, Dali Tambo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Harry Belafonte

Joe Berlinger, Jon Kamen, Justin Wilkes
Origin United States, South Africa
Running Time 108 minutes
Genre Documentary, history, music
Rating TBC

Politics versus Art.

Paul Simon's Graceland was one of the seminal albums of the 1980s. With hits such as 'Homeless', 'Boy in the Bubble' and 'You Can Call Me Al', it sold in its millions, was hugely acclaimed by the critics and won a stack of awards. What’s more it was one of the first albums to bring African music to the mainstream and made stars of unknown acts such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo. So that’s all good right?

Well actually no. It was hugely controversial at the time because the initial recordings were made in 1985 in a South Africa that was still in the grip of the Apartheid regime. There was a UN cultural boycott but Simon felt he wasn’t doing anything wrong as he wasn’t cooperating with the authorities and was only working with black artists. He was encouraged by his friend Harry Belafonte to clear his trip with the ANC first but he felt that would compromise his integrity as an artist. So shortly after the record became a hit, the protests began and Simon took a lot of criticism from the Western media and from Dali Tambo, the leader of Artists Against Apartheid part of the ANC.

In this fascinating documentary, the action is centred around a trip Simon made back to South Africa in 2011 to play a twenty-fifth anniversary concert with the original band that recorded the album and then toured it around the world extensively. The trip includes a first face-to-face meeting between Tambo and Simon and they both present their respective cases in a civilised manner. It’s not all politics though, the original recording of the music is lovingly retraced with a mixture of archive footage and rehearsal for the re-union concert. It is fascinating to see how Simon took parts of original South African songs and wrote new lyrics to create something new from them.

When Simon took the album and the band that recorded it on tour around the world he recruited South African musical icons and Apartheid dissidents Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela to perform on it with him. Their presence gave the tour credibility and it was a massive success. This was where the ANC argument started to lose credibility. They attempted to forbid the South African musicians from playing and the musicians responded angrily that they were victims in their homeland and now the ANC were making them victims on foreign lands. Certainly you do get the feeling that it was all about power for the ANC, especially with the comment from Tambo that, "It would have all been fine if he’d just cleared it with us first". In the end, it all seemed like a storm in a tea-cup as South Africans, both black and white, loved the album and the politically savvy Nelson Mandela actually invited Simon to play Graceland at his inauguration concert.

Joe Berlinger, an experienced documentary maker who made the film about Metallica, Some Kind of Monster, handles the archive material beautifully and presents both sides of the argument in an impartial manner. True he could have interviewed artists like Jerry Dammers from The Specials and Billy Bragg who were, and still are, very much opposed to what Simon did. Overall though he lets the audience reach their own conclusions, while rejoicing in the music and the respect it earned for all African music in general.

This is a must-see for fans of the album and a great opportunity for newcomers to discover a fantastic piece of music as well as a fascinating study of the politics of the time.

- Jim O’Connor