Wednesday, July 28, 2010

You First: You Can Call Me Al

Paul Simon: You Can Call Me Al


Ahhh, Graceland. What an exhilarating thing it was when I first heard the album. Yes, Paul Simon had already been around forever at that point, but this was a brand new sound. But, because I read world music magazines, I soon had to deal with the question of cultural imperialism.

The idea is this. There is some pure version of the music of every tribe in the world. This purity is destroyed when native musicians are exposed to music from outside their culture. Somehow, the villain in this is always western music. Paul Simon, in this construction, committed a worse sin by actually having these musicians play with him.

But here’s the thing: in these same magazines, I learned something of the history of South African music. The township sound that Simon was so drawn to in the first place was heavily influenced by doo-wop. So was Simon, but he took it in a different direction. Elsewhere in Africa, King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti were influenced by the music of James Brown and Miles Davis. Now take it back even further, and you find that the music of James Brown and Miles Davis evolved from the music of Africa. Music doesn’t stand still, and musicians are influenced by whatever is available to them. It is fascinating to hear music that retains its cultural purity, and has been unchanged for centuries. But it is just not that likely to happen in the modern world, and the music that replaces it is just as fascinating. I offer You Can Call Me Al as a fine example of what I mean, and I don’t think Paul Simon has anything to apologize for.

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