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It is 36 years since Paul Simon released Graceland, the album that effectively introduced South African music to the West. A record of perfectly crafted crossover pop gems including You Can Call Me Al and Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, Graceland went on to sell 16 million copies, win a Grammy for album of the year, and became an enduring touchstone for millions of music fans.
Three and a half decades on, I wonder if Graceland would ever get made today. With arguments raging in the arts about authentic voices and cultural appropriation – the thrust being that musicians, writers and actors should only create art within the tramlines of their own existence – I’m not sure it would.
Then there was the political brouhaha. In recording it, New Jersey-born Simon broke a United Nations-mandated cultural boycott of segregated South Africa, a move that Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo diplomatically called “unhelpful”. Today, it’s likely that Graceland would have been cancelled before Simon had boarded the plane to Johannesburg
All of which made this concert by the London Africa Gospel Choir a tantalising prospect. The 19-piece group, which comprises London-based musicians from the African diaspora, performed Graceland in its entirety at the Barbican, adding another layer of cross-cultural pollination to the work.
We should forget any controversies about the album, the choir’s agent Al Hardwicke-Kassi said at the start of the evening. Simon was a force for good: he may have broken the cultural boycott but he helped raise global awareness of apartheid in South Africa, which ended eight years after Graceland was released. Tonight, then, was all about the music.
Fanned out across the stage, the nine musicians and 10 singers looked resplendent. Sonically, the music was a propulsive blend of African styles, as befits a band whose membership stretches from Sierra Leone to Kenya to South Africa. With a drummer and two percussionists, the sound was full and meaty.
The group cast new light on Simon’s songs as they reinterpreted them. All Around the World, which is an accordion-driven rocker on Graceland, became an all-dancing, harmony-drenched ensemble piece.
With the choir wearing vaguely psychedelic shirts and bathed in lights that evoked swirling daisies, it was like stumbling across a thrilling, underground party in a packed Sixties dive bar in Kinshasa or Lagos. Crazy Love was slowed from a mid-tempo number to a dreamy ballad overlaid with shimmering guitars. Meanwhile African Skies – a male-female duet on Graceland – was sung just by the female choir members.
The evening, however, was hampered by two factors. The first was that Graceland (the original) is almost too loved, its intricacies too well known. This meant that comparing was, annoyingly, inevitable. For all the wonderful singing, I couldn’t help but miss Simon’s soft, quickfire delivery on occasion.
Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt for anything different, but “the boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart” didn’t sound quite right coming from someone else. It wasn’t them, it was me, as the saying goes.
The second issue was more damaging, though: there was a jarring disconnect between performers and audience. The music and joy coming from the stage were met by a masked and – until You Can Call Me Al at the end – resolutely seated crowd, who were clearly still a little Covid-scared. The whole thing was strangely muted. Which was a shame. African skies met London froideur. Unfortunately, London froideur won.
Touring until June 19. Tickets: thelagc.com