Sunday, May 17, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Paul Simon’s “Graceland”

Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, released in 1986, was what one might now call a Black Swan - its success was totally unpredictable, it had a massive impact, and in retrospect its impact almost looked predictable. This album directly resulted in the birth of the term “world music”, a term that would stick hard and only now 35 years later, has finally become irrelevant.

As youngsters, my parents did play music at home and in the car, but they were not obsessive about music, nor were they really that picky, and they certainly didn’t make a point of exposing us to any particular style of music they wanted us to like. So we listened to a lot of generic, mainstream stuff such as Hall and Oates, Journey, Elvis, Chicago, Electric Light Orchestra, Queen, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, J. Guiles Band, Steve Miller, CCR, and Nazareth but also Canadian bands like Loverboy, Chilliwack, The Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot and Bryan Adams. It was all good, but mainly a white bread musical diet.

But in 1986 my dad brought home this Graceland album and we simply didn’t know what to make of it. There was African chanting, elaborate percussion, hooting and howling, twangy and trebled out guitars, unusual chords, bizarre instruments, and lyrics thick with spine tingling imagery, exotic words, and stories so poignant that they cannot have been imagined. I can’t remember if we liked it right way (I suspect not), but we all learned to love it, and I distinctly remember air guitaring madly to the bass solo in “You Can Call Me Al”.

This album was, without a doubt, my first exposure to world music. And I think it really laid the groundwork for enabling me to appreciate so many different kinds of music. I’ve been fortunate to have travelled to and lived in a lot of different countries around the world, and a highlight of these travels has been the music. While traveling it might be possible to bypass the local music and stick to your Guns ‘n Roses set list, but I think that experiencing the Graceland album as a kid helped me to absorb local music with an open ear and discover so many amazing artists from all over the world. I’ve discovered Eastern European gypsy music, Bollywood soundtracks, Punjabi dance music, Spanish rock, Jewish klezmer, Caribbean soca, Jamaican dub, Norwegian death metal, Mongolian throat metal, and Peruvian pan flutes. Just kidding on the last one – I HATE Peruvian pan flutes.

Several of my favourite "world music" bands actually hail from Canada or have strong ties to it. Jeszcze Raz is a Montreal based band that plays a mix of klezmer, gypsy and French accordion music and the singer Paul Kunigis bounces back and forth effortlessly between Hebrew, French, Polish, and Arabic. Lhasa de Sela was a genius songwriter who also bounced between several languages and released three haunting, beautiful albums.

With the advent of music streaming services now you don't even need to leave your comfy chair to discover new and amazing types of music from around the world.

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