HRAFF Film Review – Under African Skies

By Sam Ryan
Under African Skies

Under African Skies tells the controversial story of Paul Simon’s African-influenced, critically acclaimed album Graceland, and reunites him with the South African musicians who contributed to the album 25 years on.

From the outset Simon portrays a certain amount of political naivety about the situation in South Africa that swings between disappointing and endearing throughout the film.

In the mid-1980s Simon got his hands on an album by South African band, The Boyoyo Boys. He was so taken with what he heard that he saw a potential new direction for his own music.

From the outset Simon portrays a certain amount of political naivety about the situation in South Africa that swings between disappointing and endearing throughout the film.

Although aware of the tensions in the country and encouraged to replicate the sound he wanted in a New York studio, he insisted on visiting the South Africa in 1986 to start work on new songs. Given the international cultural boycott, American singer and social activist Harry Belafonte suggested he seek the approval of the African National Congress before going. However, Simon refused the idea that he should be required to ask permission from any group to pursue his artistic venture.

Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo believes that Simon’s timing was “not helpful”. But others, like Graceland producer Koloi Lebona, saw an opportunity to promote South African music in the mainstream, so that it would no longer be seen as third world music.

Whether Simon was negligent in breaking the cultural boycott or missed a political opportunity is for the audience to decide.

Although the younger Simon is clearly far more interested in South African music than politics, he finds the short visit confronting. As he and his South African collaborators record the album, in London and New York, and embark on a world tour, he is unable to avoid the political issues intrinsically tied up in the culture and music being explored – even if the album resists directly addressing them.

Peter Gabriel – whose protest song “Biko” is cited as an example of what Simon failed to do – credits Graceland with introducing people around the world to the good things about South Africa and its music, helping people around the world realise there was a lot more to the country than suffering.

Whether Simon was negligent in breaking the cultural boycott or missed a political opportunity is for the audience to decide. Director Joe Berlinger offers the viewer room to make up their own mind, but does not downplay the cultural significance of Graceland.

Under African Skies is a fascinating tale of a pop star who, in Tambo’s words, “fell into the political whirlpool” of South African culture through its music.

Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels says that Simon’s performance of “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” on the show, backed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought about “a revolution in taste”. Rather than diluting African music, he helped transform it and brought the joyous, danceable music of South Africa to the masses. If that is what it took for people to take an interest in South Africa, then was it not worth the controversy?

A conversation between Simon and Tambo from 2011 – snippets of which are littered throughout the film – demonstrates the complexity of the issue. They view it from two very different levels and, again, Berlinger seems careful not to take sides. Tambo believes that the fight against apartheid required a united struggle; that the South Africans involved were “individuals part of a nation, and the good of the nation comes first”.

“When you have a boycott, it’s not flexible”, he says. “You can’t ask of everyone what you don’t ask of one.”

Simon views it at a more personal level, citing the people he met and worked with, who welcomed him warmly and chose to tour the world with him, despite the cultural boycott.

Under African Skies is a fascinating tale of a pop star who, in Tambo’s words, “fell into the political whirlpool” of South African culture through its music. Without necessarily setting out to, he raised awareness about the situation in South Africa as he became unwittingly further involved.

… even in Paul Simon’s apparent political naivety there is a significant promise about art’s ability to bring people together.

Simon’s album and tour were a celebration not just of African music, but of the inherent possibility in collaboration between people of different colour and culture. The extent to which they opened listeners’ eyes by appealing to their ears is debatable, but even in Paul Simon’s apparent political naivety there is a significant promise about art’s ability to bring people together.

Under African Skies is showing at the Melbourne opening of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival on 15 May 2012 at 6:30pm, at The Forum Theatre in Melbourne. The screening will be followed by an opening night after party at ACMI, The Cube. It will include drinks, food and music by JABULA! To purchase tickets, click here.

The film is also showing:

On Tuesday 29 May 2012 at 7pm, at Adelaide’s Mercury Theatre. To purchase tickets, click here.

On Friday 8 June 2012 at 7pm, at Alice Springs’ Pop Cinema, Olive Pink Botanical Gardens. To purchase tickets, click here.

For more on our coverage of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, click here.

To visit the HRAFF website, click here.

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