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Music

The only 'Graceland' song Paul Simon wrote in Africa

@TylerGolsen

The excursion taken by Paul Simon in the mid-1980s to apartheid-era South Africa was meant to be a spiritual journey. Simon had been taken by a bootleg tape he heard of Soweto street music, and after consulting with ‘We Are the World’ producers Quincy Jones and Henry Belefonte, Simon decided to record his next album in South Africa. 

It was a controversial move: South Africa was under a cultural boycott from many United Nations countries, including the United States, thanks to their apartheid policies. Simon broke the boycott in order to record there, and although he received the blessing of the South African black musicians union, Simon would be criticised in his home country for the move.

Without a clear objective, Simon simply gathered prominent musicians from the Johannesburg area to record jam sessions. Looking to get in touch with the same music that had affected him on the bootleg, Simon didn’t actually write any songs or even edit very much material when he was in South Africa. It was only when he returned home to New York that the process of forming the jams into songs would begin. This would also prove to be contentious, as some of the South African musicians (along with American collaborators Los Lobos) would later claim that Simon stole compositions wholesale from them.

During his entire month-long stay in South Africa, Simon only came up with a single line of lyrics. Those words were “The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, the way we look to us all,” which would later be included in Graceland’s opening track ‘The Boy in the Bubble’. Simon expected to be inspired by the different cultures he encountered in Africa, but it was only after he returned to America that he truly began turning those experiences into lyrics.

‘The Boy in the Bubble’ would be another example of Simon taking musical ideas created by others and forming them into his own song. The track is anchored by prominent accordion work from Forere Motloheloa, a Lesotho musician who contributed to the South African sessions. Simon was willing to give songwriting credits to those who he viewed as making major contributions, and Motloheloa was one of the few contributors who received a credit.

For most listeners, ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ was their introduction to Simon’s retooled sound as the very first track heard on Graceland. Although it wasn’t as successful when released as a single as ‘You Can Call Me Al’, ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ was more firmly rooted in the traditional South African music that Simon had originally become infatuated with.

Check out ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ down below.