Monday, February 6, 2012

Under African Skies

In this short song-- two verses, one chorus-- Simon pays tribute to two remarkable singers.

The first is the man who started, and still leads, the South African chorus Ladysmith Black Mambazo. His name is Joseph Shabalala (accent on the first "la"). The verse, however, reveals precious little. We learn only that he is "black" and "African," and we might infer from the mention of the "moon" and "stars" that he liked to take walks at night.

The second verse seems to refer to Linda Ronstadt, a powerful singer with an enormous range, both vocally and genre-wise. As the song correctly reports, Ronstadt is from "Tucson, Arizona."

"Mission music" would be hymns emanating from the "missions," Catholic missionary churches (including The Alamo, in Texas) that dot the Southwest, which often had bells (the "ringing" in the song). What relationship a young Ronstadt had with such music I cannot find. Perhaps it was sung to her by her parents or grandparents, perhaps she joined a choir, perhaps he simply heard it as she passed by the church doors. In any event, the song suggests it was an influence on her music.

The word "harmony" seems to refer simply to "music." While Ronstadt has had several successful duets, notably with Aaron Neville of The Neville Brothers, the large majority of her work is as a solo vocalist.

Lastly, the idea that Ronstadt would ask no more of God than a beautiful voice and the ability to use it-- "Take this child, Lord... give her the wings to fly through harmony/ And she won’t bother you no more"-- is again a matter of speculation. I cannot speak to her religion, intensity of religious practice, or feelings on religious matters whatsoever, although that information may be available elsewhere. The lyrics suggest, however, that Ronstadt's relationship with religion can at least be described as aloof.

Why is it necessary to discuss where, and from what background, a musician comes? The answer is offered in the chorus: "This is the story of how we begin to remember... These are the roots of rhythm."

The story of the singer, in other words, is the story of the songs. In order to learn about the music he had loved his whole life, Simon had to trace the lineage of the sounds back to their sources... which was the point of the Graceland project altogether.

Simon found, on his journey, Joseph, a man whose lifetime in Africa, and African music, was a treasure-trove for Simon. He also discovered, or perhaps realized, that he had had fellow travelers on this road.

Ronstadt, his contemporary, was one. After a life of singing pop, rock, country, and jazz-- and two years after recording this song with Simon-- she recorded an album whose Spanish title means "Songs from My Father," who was (among other things) of Mexican descent. But she had already explored the rich variety of American song, as Simon had, in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

What else do the stories convey? "This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein." The basic rhythms of all music are traceable to the human heartbeat. But blood is only in the vein because love put it there, and the loves and heartbeats-- the people, soul and body-- who came before... and their stories.

When does one become very aware of one's heartbeat? Upon awakening from a nightmare: "After the dream of falling and calling your name out."

And, in this moment of despair, of fright, what does one's heartbeat do? Calms one down. It reassures the dreamer that he is still alive and safe. Similarly, music can have that reassuring effect on the throes of living itself.

The stories and the heartbeats form and inform the music. These things are ever new, but ever the same. There is both freedom and solidity in that.

"These are the stories of how we begin to remember"-- the stories of the musicians are the stories of the music, and the stories and songs both recall the past. "This is the powerful pulsing of love"-- these rhythms come from those heartbeats.

"These," then, "are the roots of rhythm," Simon concludes, "and the roots of rhythm remain." They were there, waiting for Simon to discover them, decades and oceans away from where he was born.

How wonderful to know that they will always be there, whenever we need to look for them.

Simon performed this song as part of his Graceland concert in Africa. Ronstadt did not join him on stage for this number; instead, Miriam Makeba did. She is known as "Mama Africa" on her home continent, but has an international hit called "Pata Pata" in the 1970s. She lived in exile for decades due to her opposition to South African apartheid. In her honor, Simon wrote new lyrics to the song for her to sing that were about her life instead of Ronstadt's.

2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the Graceland release. It is being marked by the release of a documentary of the making of the album. The film's title comes from the title of this song: Paul Simon: Under African Skies. There is another documentary about the album, part of the "Classic Albums" series of videos.

Next song: "Homeless"


  1. Great info! Thanks for sharing! Do you know by chance (or know where/how I could find out) what Miriam Makebais singing in her version of Under African Skies? As in the African lyrics? Cheers! :)

  2. There is a performance DVD of the Graceland concert held in Africa, with the complete Simon/Makeba duet. I bought mine in a bookstore (You see, children, once there were stores that sold books! And books were...) but I am certain it is on Amazon. She sings the verse Simon wrote for her, for the event, but it is in English.
    I don't know of a solo version by Makeba in Swahili, Housa or even Afrikaans, but if I were to look, I would do the same as you-- a routine search on Google and YouTube. You might also find a store specializing in African imports and gifts.

  3. The Miriam Makeeba version is on You Tube. Also the "Yellow Moon Shown In His Eyes" may be reference due to the yellowing of eyes for many Africans from having had malaria.

  4. Janet-- Thanks for an alternate source for the Makeba performance. However. I am not sure about the malaria idea-- it says the Moon was yellow, not his eyes... and to my knowledge Shabalala, whose eyes these are, has not had malaria (although I suppose it is possible. The disease is survivable with correct treatment.).

  5. Hi there. The second verse is indeed about Linda Ronstadt. One of Linda's cousins told me that when Paul Simon sings the song with another vocalist in concert, he writes a verse about that woman. As you say, the song = the musicians. Well thought-out article :)

  6. Janean-- Thanks so much for confirming my theory! (and for the compliment)

  7. According to:

    This is what Linda Ronstadt said: "When Paul Simon asked me for something from my childhood that visually symbolized the part of the country I grew up in, without even thinking I immediately said the San Xavier [del Bac] Mission, so he put it in a song ["Under African Skies"] that I sang with him as a duet on his Graceland album." "Tucson also has the most beautiful light in the world. Even at night it's amazing. There are two places on the planet that have the lowest amount of ambient light at night where the sky is very, very dark and the stars are plainly visible - a place in Africa and Tucson. "

  8. Anon-- Thanks for the information. Also, I am familiar with the Dark Skies Project, which is an effort to lower ambient lights in cities to both save energy and reveal the stars once more to urban inhabitants.

  9. Thank you for explaining a lot of things I had always wondered about!

  10. *+*, if I may use your nickname, thanks right back. Glad to help.

  11. I had always thought it referred to Joseph, earthly father of Christ

    1. MilkLrz-- I'm sorry, but I'm afraid the information in the song means that your interpretation cannot be the case. The Joseph you mean lived in the Holy Land, solidly north of the Equator.
      This Joseph, we are told, lived "the length of his days," or his whole life, in "the Southern Hemisphere."