Simon says while the Congo plays

Submitted by Adam D. Ketchum on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 6:36 PM

Two very different examples of music that was shaped by their respective cultures is Paul Simon’s Graceland and Congotronics by Konono Nº1.  Despite their obvious differences sonically or otherwise, the two share a connection: Africa.  Graceland features various influences from South Africa.  Some of these, such as the inclusion of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, are very obvious.  Other inclusions such as the way the bass line in “You Can Call Me Al” or the slide whistle on the same track are references to traditional African music called Mbaqanga.  On the other hand, Congotronics connection to Africa is very obvious.  This is music born in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  What is far more interesting than the similarities between the two are the differences.
    Graceland is an album that holds a deep significance to me personally.  The album seems to feature a theme of loneliness and dejection, and if what I’ve heard is correct, it was written shortly following Simon’s divorce from actress Carrie Fisher (yes, Leia from Star Wars).  The first time I listened to it, I had just reached the point were a relationship of significance was falling apart.  I had a plan to visit my sister in Memphis, TN and see Elvis Presley’s home.  I listened to Graceland the whole way down from Massachusetts.  It was the most profound experience I had ever had with pop music.
    Since Graceland hit me on a such a personal level, it was extremely disappointing to discover that Simon’s borrowing Mbaqanga was tantamount to “musical colonialism”.  Simon takes various elements of the traditional South African musical form (which at the time of the recording was very much frowned upon, as people had instituted a boycott on all things South African in response to the apartheid) and essentially westernizes them.  This is most notable in his appropriation of the slide whistle from Mbaqanga.  He takes something with a certain set of aesthetics attached to the Mbaqanga musical form (a wheezy sound due to the whistle’s cheap quality of construction), changes it to a set of aesthetics that would be pleasing to a western audience (very clean and refined sound), then sells it for his own personal benefit.  There is no acknowledgement of his source material.  It is presented as a Paul Simon invention.  It represents a domineering and ego-centric attitude, one that is similar to that of the colonial powers who imposed their own standards on the indigenous people of Africa centuries ago.
    The track “Homeless” is an obvious preemptive response to the charges which would eventually be leveled agains Simon for breaching the boycott.  It features the well known South African acapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and offers them co-writer's credit.  In fact this is one of the few tracks that intricately details the creative process it went through to be created.  If one takes the song’s mournful tone and lyrics (those I am able to understand) along with the title of the track itself, it’s clear that Simon’s intent was to create something that would draw attention to the reprehensible and repugnant political system in place in South Africa at the time.  Ironically if one listens to the structure of the music, it almost mirrors what happened in South Africa.  The song begins with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing in their traditional style.  Then Paul Simon enters.  Where by accident or design, he dominates the track upon his arrival.  Suddenly he becomes the dominate figure.  All the South African singers are following his lead.  This may be the result of a need to market the song as a Paul Simon song, or merely something that Simon thought would sound good.  Regardless the similarities one can draw between colonialism and what Simon is doing on this album, and especially the “Homeless” track are rather disturbing, even in light of the ostensibly socially conscious message of the song.
    In stark contrast to Simon’s glossy pop album stands Congotronics.  This music is very raw sounding.  It was created in a country ravaged by war, by people who had to improvise instruments out of whatever they could find.  There are traditional African instruments made with car parts, and amplifiers made from giant scavenged magnets found in junkyards.  The result is a unique and authentic sound.  This is the difference between traditional music, and imitation.  Even though at first listen one wouldn’t think of Congotronics as “traditional” African music (critics would say that it has too much of a rock music sound to be traditionally African), it very much is.  It was developed in Africa, and when performed there, it’s performed for the community.  This music isn’t some sterilized pop song created for mass appeal.  It’s real, raw, authentic traditional African music.  It’s due to this that it sonically dominates over the Paul Simon album, despite it’s sentimental value.  It’s just more real and sounds so much more interesting.  Hopefully Crammed Records, the Belgian record company who has been releasing Congotronic music won’t attempt to clean up the sound.  It’s appeal lies in the buzzing raw energy that cannot be recreated in a studio.