If every generation throws a hero up the pop charts, Paul Simon has been twice anointed, first as a 1960s folk-rock icon, then as world music emissary with "Graceland," the landmark album he released 25 years ago this month.
Stung by a second failed marriage and looking for a way to boost his flagging career, the singer-songwriter holed up at home on Long Island and was contemplating a new direction when a friend gave him a tape of South African "township jive."
A smitten Simon ventured to South Africa to catch up with the musicians, spending weeks recording with them as a global movement gelled against the racial segregation system known as apartheid.
Then in August, 1986 he stunned the world with what is universally considered his solo masterpiece: 11 eclectic tracks of autobiographical pop, soulful American R&B, Louisiana zydeco and Chicano rock layered with gorgeous African rhythms and harmonies that catapulted him back into the limelight.
It became the soundtrack to the lives of countless Americans and Europeans, selling 14 million copies, winning album of the year and song of the year Grammy Awards, turning acapella South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo into superstars and bringing African music in general to a wider world.
It pre-dated today’s musical mash-ups, and with the album coming as it did at the dawn of compact discs, and on the cusp of the mobile phone and Internet revolutions, its opening track "The Boy in the Bubble" foretold the future with its hi-tech imagery.
"These are the days of lasers in the jungle," Simon sang.
In a way, "Graceland" was the first 21st Century album.
"It sounds like it could have been made yesterday," author Marc Eliot, whose biography of Simon came out last year, told AFP.
"If he had done nothing else but that album, he’d be in the pantheon of the greats."
Simon, who turns 70 in October, is among just a handful of artists to make hit records in seven decades, from the late 1950s with friend Art Garfunkel to this year’s album "So Beautiful or So What."
In the 1970s, Simon produced soulful and sentimental rock and made forays into Latin beats and reggae.
But by the early 80s his new work was largely ignored. Slip-sliding into irrelevance, he took a chance few major artists would have, said Eliot, by seeking out rock’s roots and traveling to Africa.
Space for world music
Simon didn’t look nostalgically at the continent as a source of musical influence, however — he was embracing Africa’s current of creativity, and in the process challenging a backward political system five years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
"For me, ‘Graceland’ still remains the greatest album ever produced by any outside composer representing South African music," said Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, the South African musician who took Simon to Johannesburg’s Soweto township in 1985 and suggested musicians the American could work with.
But it couldn’t just be about the songs, lush as they were with Simon’s effortless tenor intertwined with the rich, humid voices of Ladysmith singers on tracks such as "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes" and "Homeless."
Politics had its grip on all things cultural in South Africa, and Mabuse recalled the controversy over Simon’s visit, saying "it profiled South Africa at the height of apartheid."
In the end, "they loved it," Eliot said of the reception South Africa gave the album.
But Simon was criticized as a white American parachuting in to exploit the talents of lesser-known musicians, and protesters inside and outside South Africa felt he was violating a UN cultural boycott on the country.
"People were divided," recalled South African-born Sean Jacobs, a professor at the New School in New York who also blogs about Africa.
"Some thought he would give legitimacy to a regime that was in really big trouble."
Instead, Jacobs said, what was put squarely in the spotlight was black Africa.
"He definitely created the space" for world music, said Jacobs. "He made it acceptable that you could sell records with sounds that were not well-known and predictable."
Simon returned to South Africa three weeks ago to perform with musicians who played on the album, in a show reportedly to be aired in a documentary.
"It felt like I was coming home," Simon said, according to Billboard magazine.
Among those joining him for the reunion was Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala, who at age 72 still sounds startled at his band’s enduring appeal.
"We were not expecting to tour the world" with Simon, Shabalala told AFP, but there were "invitations from everywhere."
He said "Graceland" — named for the home of Elvis Presley, who embraced African-American music as a direct influence on rock & roll — opened the doors to an interracial conversation in South Africa that led to the crumbling of apartheid.
"That was the beginning," Shabalala said.