Paths to Graceland
July 4, 2012 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Paths to Graceland is a new mix from the Kleptones. Not bad listening for a BBQ.
posted by gwint (24 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, that is absolutely beautiful. I have some non-simple and non-snark thoughts, though:

So this is a white UK musician re-releasing for free the work of the work of South African musicians who've pretty much sunk into obscurity. This work inspired a white US musician who made a lot of money and cultural capital from it. The US musician, Paul Simon, was widely criticized both for breaking the cultural boycott of apartheid South African and for exploiting the South African musicians, none of whom (not even Ladysmith Black Mambazo) attained to anything close to Paul Simon's wealth and influence. I don't even know what to do with that.

It seems particularly germane that the Kleptones dude increases his cultural capital (which is as important as financial capital, especially in the age of the internets, and which can often be translated into it) by his skilled deployment of the "lost" work of South African musicians.

I recently very thoughtlessly played a super-appropriative track by a white musician (think "sort of a nineties equivalent of 'Gucci Gucci'") at an event, and feel like a real jerk for doing so, so I am especially anxious to think this sort of thing through so as never, ever to do it again.

When I think about all of this, I am reminded that very often "high culture" appropriation or nerd appropriation gets a pass (ie, Tune-Yards get a pass from progressives, Kreashawn doesn't). I am also reminded of the fact that my dad loves the album Graceland, and I grew up hearing it and have nothing but dear, intense, emotionally-charged memories around it. (The whole year I was in so love with this girl, someone I uselessly fell in love with at first sight of her dark flat hair and wide frown, my first falling-in-love-and-being-queer, and that year comes back to me in memory all as a bright, late fall afternoon set to 'Gumboots'.) My father used to use "You Can Call Me Al" as a way of introducing close-reading in this literature class he taught at our church. (Hint, look for the Eumenides.) And yet, it's an album where the dude broke the boycott of apartheid Africa. If it came out today and burst newly upon my consciousness (and had an equivalent boycott-breakage, seeing as there is no longer a SA boycott) there's no way I would buy it, any more than I would buy a Tune-Yards album. No matter how pretty it sounded or how accomplished it was.

So I mean, I don't know what to do with any of this business.

It's not even a matter of mute, inglorious Miltons; it's perfectly audible Miltons whose cultural capital gets hoovered up by others.
posted by Frowner at 2:55 PM on July 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

<barney>JUST HOOK IT TO MY VEINS!</barney>
posted by uosuaq at 3:05 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Holy Crap... Now that's dance music.
posted by jgaiser at 3:08 PM on July 4, 2012

Accordion without Weird Al? Heretics.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:18 PM on July 4, 2012

Frowner, with all due respect, perhaps you are over-thinking this. I don't believe that the original performers are being harmed by someone digging up an obscure cassette from the 80's and posting it as part of a mixtape. My opinion is that Mbaqanga musicians would probably prefer that someone, somewhere derive joy from their work.
posted by last night a dj saved my life at 4:05 PM on July 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

i absolutely love the kleptones. if you're looking for a place to start with them, might i suggest a night at the hip-hopera. i listen to it multiple times a week.
posted by nadawi at 4:25 PM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is neat.

The backstory reminds me of Mbube/A Lion's Trail (previously), and of Strictly Breaks/Ultimate Breaks & Beats/etc.
posted by box at 4:25 PM on July 4, 2012

the dude broke the boycott of apartheid Africa

Seems to me that you're arguing both sides against the middle... Simon was a villain for not giving the black musicians that were involved in Graceland enough money, but then you hate him for giving the black musicians that were involved in Graceland any money at all.
posted by Malor at 4:35 PM on July 4, 2012

@Frowner: I admit I never have been convinced of the idea that Simon was wrong to break the apartheid boycott. I'm open to being convinced, but it's not as if he was palling around with P.W. Botha, he was supporting the part of South Africa that was being oppressed; and he helped gained exposure for a musicians that they likely would not have gotten otherwise. Again, I'm open to being told why this position is wrong, but I'm not seeing it now.

In any case, this is a great find. Like a lot of people in my generation, I have a strong emotional memory tied to Graceland. There was an essay a while back that encapsulated this:

The Paul Simon who, on a bus en route to New York City told his sleeping girlfriend that he was empty and aching and he didn’t know why, that Simon belongs to our parents. My generation may love him but he’s not ours. The Simon who is soft in the middle (or at least feels an affinity for men who happen to be), however, the one who reminds young women of money, who has been divorced and has a kid to prove it, and who has the means to catch a cab uptown and take it all the way downtown talking dispassionately while doing so about the comings and goings of breakdowns, that Simon belongs to us as much as he does to our folks because he is our folks. Not our folks the way they were before we were born, but the way they were when we first knew them, as they were losing their edge and feeling maybe a little insecure about that loss; our folks as we knew them when we ourselves were entering that era of childhood which finally allowed for reflection and the retention of memory and for the level of awareness that clued us into the fact that a baby with a baboon heart was something to wonder at and to then distantly — vaguely — mourn when she died three weeks after her baboon heart first beat inside her body; this was our folks the way they were when they were trying to raise us right: to say please and thank you and to only send food back under dire circumstances; the way they were when we really saw them for the first time. At least, in retrospect. Now that we’re grown, that first introduction lingers. We also recognize not just our parents in the words of those songs, but ourselves and our own impending midlives that loiter like shortening shadows on the horizon.
posted by Cash4Lead at 4:38 PM on July 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think Paul Simon raised the consciousness of many Americans to the value of Black music from SA. He was not promoting apartheid if anything he was supporting the resistance. As for taking credit for the music that is another story, he provided lyrics and the production of the album he may have even tweaked some of the riffs he stole it certainly doesn't make me dislike the music or Paul Simon. Graceland is still a great album to listen to and this goes into my music folder as well. Thanks for the post.
posted by pdxpogo at 4:43 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not really sure what's supposed to be wrong with either tune-yards' or Kreayshawn's music (aside from the fact that I can't stand the former). Is Merrill Garbus not allowed to play music like/influenced by what she heard in Kenya? Or is it that Garbus and Kreayshawn have a bad attitude to the music they play, or to the personas that they adopt in playing it? (Does Garbus not, like, come by it honestly?)
posted by kenko at 5:23 PM on July 4, 2012

(Also, where are the Eumenides?)
posted by kenko at 5:26 PM on July 4, 2012

FWIW, a documentary commemorating the 25-year anniversary of Paul Simon's Graceland came out this year, called Under African Skies.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:21 PM on July 4, 2012

Paul Simon, was widely criticized both for breaking the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa...

Leaving aside the exploitation issue, I can't see how working with the oppressed aids the oppressors.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:30 PM on July 4, 2012

That documentary is on Hulu for free btw.
posted by thylacine at 6:48 PM on July 4, 2012

Does the documentary mention Los Lobos?
posted by dobbs at 7:55 PM on July 4, 2012

I tried to watch the doc on Hulu, but after a minute, you're told you have to have Hulu Plus to continue. I love Paul Simon's Graceland and thank you for this incredible post!
posted by unwordy at 10:00 PM on July 4, 2012

Oh man, this is great music, thanks.

I'd fairly recently read about Los Lobos' feeling Paul Simon left them out of co-writing credits on Graceland and ever since, I liked hearing Graceland even more through that lens. So this post really complements that. I love listening to an album I thought I'd known for 25 years and hearing brand new things in it.
posted by not_on_display at 10:46 PM on July 4, 2012

If you are starting out with the Kleptones, I think 24 hours is the place to start. It's the best, in my opinion.
posted by Catblack at 11:10 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember hearing that the South African musician's union had a big debate and vote over allowing members to collaborate on the album. They voted yes. If this is true, isn't it just arrogant paternalism for American or Europeans to disregard their decision, and to view the record as some kind of collaboration with apartheid?
posted by thelonius at 5:42 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember hearing that the South African musician's union had a big debate and vote over allowing members to collaborate on the album. They voted yes. If this is true, isn't it just arrogant paternalism for American or Europeans to disregard their decision, and to view the record as some kind of collaboration with apartheid?

The ANC, however, didn't want Simon to record, and shared this sentiment with many other anti-apartheid radicals in SA. I mean, I don't regard the record as a collaboration with apartheid - that suggests that Simon endorsed apartheid in some way, which is obviously untrue.

It's just that there's this thing that happens again and again, and I do not like this thing one bit: there are these artists who don't have much power and who belong to a marginalized group (usually they are people of color, sometimes they're just poor, sometimes they are queer, sometimes they are immigrants, sometimes they are indigenous etc). Their oppression basically benefits mainstream people - maybe their land was seized and redistributed, maybe they work for very little money in lousy jobs, maybe it's just the "wages of whiteness" in terms of job preferences, whatever. Their art is not highly regarded in the mainstream and often is not preserved very well in their own communities due to lack of archives, record production, museums, etc. They don't make a good living off their art. Maybe their art is even derided in the mainstream, or used as an example of decadence or social collapse.

So anyway, mainstream art goes along as it does. And there is some kind of mainstream artist - usually from a wealthy background relative to the marginalized artists, since the artist has the time and money to do a lot of investigation of other forms. (Sometimes there will have been mainstream artists in the marginalized form before, but they will have, say, grown up in the marginalized community and their art will also be marginalized.) Anyway, the mainstream artist is usually, actually, a pretty significant creator with a good eye. And the white artists is looking for inspiration and spots all these despised forms that no one in the mainstream world has used before and that also have the charge, the frisson, of their marginalization. Mainstream artist repackages them - sometimes changing relatively little, sometimes changing a lot - and sells them to the mainstream art world, making a lot of money and getting a lot of fame. The marginalized artists go substantially unrecognized, or are figured as "folk" influences producing "naive" art. They don't make much money. A lot of their work is lost. Some of their work is preserved, but only because it is the "roots" of the mainstream artist's work. The mainstream artist will inspire a whole host of other mainstream artists who will make money and cultural capital doing the same thing until the marginalized style goes out of fashion.

The mainstream artists and audience will generally know little about the matrix in which the marginalized form developed, so they will not recognize the skills in the work of the "folk" marginalized musicians, and will consider the mainstream artist's work very brilliant and original and much, much better. The mainstream artist will be hailed as extremely creative and brilliant when a tremendous amount of the development of the form was not done by the mainstream artist. The mainstream artist will have lots of resources to develop their art and create new things, while the marginalized artists will struggle and do art in their spare time. The marginalized artists may never be seen as "artists" at all by most people - just as folk musicians or cartoonists or amateurs or whatever.

To use a non-music example: there are tons and tons of fashion things that I thought were original to various brilliant designers - various ways of combining clothes or cuts or whatever. And I'm always happening across, like, working class glam fashion from 1970 or Asian-American debutante photos or something and realizing that it wasn't this genius fashion designer who invented [thing]; it was some black designer or some Asian dressmaker who never, ever even had the connections or the possibility of becoming famous and successful the way the Brilliant Designer has. And even if Brilliant Designer is pretty open about where they get their inspiration - which they generally aren't, trade secrets being what they are - most people still won't know.

There is this specific modern idea of the great lone genius who creates brilliantly out of his genius head, towering above everyone else. And that is so, so seldom realistic. It's just that the other people are not seen as real artists so no one mentions them. (A simple illustration - there are many, many male historians of the 19th and 20th centuries whose wives did a ton of research and writing with their husbands but who generally were not credited. And even if they are credited now, which is by now means all of them, they are not regarded as scholars the same way their husbands were. And half the time there's not a precise record of everything they did anyway.)

It gets me down, honestly. It's like first white folks come for the gold and the land and then they come back for the cultural capital.

I stress that this is about power and money. It gets framed as "but Japanese people totally wear blue jeans so it's not appropriative for me to dress as a geisha", like it's mostly about culture, and as if the issue is whether or not there is reciprocal cultural influence. But really it's about structures - who has access to audiences, who gets described as creators and artists; who makes a living; whose work is archived. Who gets viewed as just one of an amorphous clump of "folk" creators; who gets viewed as a "naive" creator rather than having intent; whose work gets lost and misattributed. Who gets the cultural credit - and the career boost and the 'curator' status - from rediscovering the "lost" work that wouldn't have been lost in the first place except for entrenched inequality.

I add that there is this dynamic of "high" art getting emotional energy from the transgressions and exoticness of low or folk art. Like, it's kicky and exotic to have this "primitive" music or indigenous art - when the feeling of "ooh this is so new and different and exciting" comes from the very fact that the "primitive" and indigenous work has been marginalized. Like, voodoun is exotic and kicky; Lutheranism isn't.

The Kleptones link is at the end of a long chain of marginalization and theft. It's very easy and tempting to pretend that it isn't part of that chain, and just say "ooh, well at least the music is getting distributed"...but the same thing happens over and over again, with the same kind of "lost" music getting "rediscovered" in the same way. If it were just once, it wouldn't matter because then it would just be random.

Vis-a-vis Kreashawn and Tune-Yards: Okay, Kreashawn is creepy - white girl (whose body and self-presentation, whose thinness and whiteness and white-style prettiness are always going to make her a person valued and privileged and will always get her a lot more passes than most other women and most people of color) enacts a cartoon of hip-hop misogyny for laughs and cash, being all creepy-ass about women of color while surrounding herself with men of color so that no one will call her out. There's that. But there's also the systemic fact that a delicate-featured white woman rapping has this kicky novelty "artistic" value for white audiences that a black woman rapping just doesn't.

Tune-Yards? Like everyone else of my age and general educational background, I want to like them/her because the music is pretty and accomplished. (Except her politics seem kind of screwed up.) But there's something sort of shallow about going to the other side of the world for a semester and coming back with a big new artistic identity...It would be like if I spent a semester in Japan and came back talking about how I was totally into Buddhism now and my life was totally transformed and "Japanese" values are the best and I am totally into them now...when a short acquaintance with a radically different cultural milieu produces that kind of surface transformation, it sort of rubs me the wrong way. Also, I really hate that she wears face paint, because historically face paint on tribal people has been used as a marker of their otherness, primitiveness and disposability but on a blond white woman it's fashionable and artistic and a marker of status. I think her self-presentation and the face-paint bug me as much as the music if not more.

To what extent are people responsible for the systems in which they find themselves? I don't know. I assume that Kreashawn and that Tune-Yards woman aren't awful people who sit around thinking about how they will have success because they are white women wearing cultural signifiers that are kicky and transgressive; I assume that they are sincerely into the music they produce and put a bunch of effort into it. But I am reluctant to say "hey, that's all right, you're sincere so it doesn't matter that you're part of this basically unjust system".

I am even more reluctant to say "oh, it's art, so the systems under which it is produced and distributed are unimportant", not least because that naturalizes the entire history of music recording and distribution, as if music just fell out of the sky instead of being produced.

I'd fairly recently read about Los Lobos' feeling Paul Simon left them out of co-writing credits on Graceland and ever since, I liked hearing Graceland even more through that lens.

I think we must be miscommunicating a little bit here, because my first reading is "I like this album even more now that I know that Paul Simon ripped off a bunch of extremely talented musicians of color, because that is so fascinating." It's not ancient Roman history where a scandal or an injustice has a simply historical fascination; Los Lobos is still around and Simon could totally fix things up if he wanted. The fact that he does not is kind of dismaying and makes me like him a lot less.
posted by Frowner at 7:15 AM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Frowner, what are your thoughts on the Buena Vista Social Club?

Different animal? Ry Cooder did parachute in to "bring Cuban music to the world", but it seems he put the Cubans front and center and some (Ibrahim Ferrer) at least did OK out of it.
posted by anthill at 7:33 AM on July 5, 2012

Frowner, I want to be sympathetic to your argument, but it seems to ignore that musicians have been re-mixing and stealing and incorporating influences basically forever. Bach put folk tunes into his cantatas. There's a difference between the financial results of the structural situation you describe, and the act of making music itself. You seem to be saying that people should only play music that comes out of their own cultural heritage and that anything else is appropriation, but I just don't think culture works that way. Is what Tune-Yards is doing different from a white American singing jazz or blues? (I mean musically, I can't speak to face-paint or whatever, I've only heard the music.) Should my almost-entirely-white Unitarian church choir never sing spirituals? That question is not rhetorical. A couple of years ago we were presented with an arrangement of a spiritual that had the lyrics written in dialect with lots of "de" for "the" and "ob" for "of" - I felt deeply uncomfortable singing that, but why? Is it different from singing "De Colores" in Spanish when none of us speak Spanish as a first language?

These are all tangled questions, and I think that a lot of what you say has merit, but I'm not sure how to resolve it without placing a lot of unreasonable restrictions on how people create music. You say that none of Paul Simon's collaborators on Graceland acheived the power and influence and wealth that Simon had, but I don't think it's solely because they were African. Paul Simon has spent half a century working with astonishingly good musicians who don't have the power and wealth he does, from Art Garfunkel forward. Tony Levin and Steve Gadd and Adrian Belew also don't have Paul Simon level power and wealth.
posted by Daily Alice at 8:18 AM on July 5, 2012

The fact that he does not is kind of dismaying and makes me like him a lot less.

I have a hard time blaming artists for wanting to avoid the legal system. Even when they have to make "no comment" or dickish moves. I would assume if he added Los Lobos now, he'd be opening himself up to paying backroyalties and all sorts of other crap that really only make Lawyers money.

The Kleptones download page is filled with things worth listening to. Over and Over again. 24 Hours is my favorite, but I love parts of Uptime/Downtime and Night at the Hip Hopera is crazy fun.

Good mashups pet a part of my brain that I didn't know needed attention.
posted by DigDoug at 8:20 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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