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'Graceland' Stirs Interest In African Pop

March 08, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

Don't be embarrassed if you've never heard of the album "The Indestructible Beat of Soweto," even though the sampler of South African music was recently declared one of the 10 best LPs of 1986 in a survey of U.S. pop and rock critics.

Even most pop record buyers in Zimbabwe, one of the countries on South Africa's northern border, wouldn't recognize the names of most of the artists on the "Soweto" album.

Everest Chitagu, manager of the Spinalong record shop in the capital of Harare, said during Paul Simon's concert weekend last month that it took the success of Simon's "Graceland" album to get white music fans there interested in the records of black musicians from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Chitagu, who is black, said most whites in town weren't exposed to the music in the days before Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 because they didn't go to the black clubs. Though things have loosened up since 1980, most whites still assume there is little of value in the music.

"Or else," said Chitagu, "the black artists would be signed by big (U.S. or British) record companies."

But the rich, invigorating sounds of the South African rhythms on "Graceland" have caused many white buyers to begin checking out the "local" bins in his shop.

On the day after Simon's second concert there, Chitagu placed orders for more copies of "Graceland" and for records by some of the musicians who played with Simon: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the 10-member a cappella group, and Stimela, the band headed by guitarist Ray Phiri.

Don't get the idea, however, that all black music from the region is worth pursuing. Many of records I sampled during the visit to Harare turned out to be watered-down versions of Western pop, funk and disco.

The best records, however, were inviting indeed--warm, exuberant music as joyful and embracing as such cross-cultural landmarks as the 1975 reggae sound track "The Harder They Come" and, closer to home, the New Orleans roots celebration of 1976's "Wild Tchoupitoulas" LP.

Shanachie and Carthage, U.S. record companies that specialize in international pop, have done a good job of putting together packages from South Africa that should appeal to adventurous pop fans in this country. This is music so filled with vitality and spirit that even the language barrier doesn't dampen its impact.

Just when "Graceland" has stirred international interest in black South African music, the issue of a cultural boycott has left many U.S. pop fans confused.

One faction of the anti-apartheid movement seems to say that Western music buyers should boycott any music produced in South Africa--even the music of black artists like Ladysmith and Stimela, and compilations like "The Indestructible Beat of Soweto."

That suggestion angers Ray Phiri, the black South African guitarist who worked on the "Graceland" album. During an interview in Harare last month, he said, "To say we should be (boycotted) means we become victimized by the people (outside of South Africa) who say we are victims.

"This ("Graceland") album and tour is giving every musician in South Africa hope . . . a chance (finally) to be heard by the rest of the world. Until now, there was no hope. (Record executives outside of South Africa) said there was no interest in our music . . . that it wasn't commercial. How can you say . . . now that people are finally listening . . . that you are helping me by stopping me or my music coming to your country?"

M. D. Naidoo, chief press officer for the outlawed South African opposition movement African National Congress, also rejects the idea of a blanket boycott covering anything produced in South Africa.

In a recent interview with Britain's New Musical Express, he said: "The ANC wants to see the maximum possible support for and the building of relationships with that part of South Africa which represents the people who are fighting for the overthrow of the apartheid regime and for the subsequent replacement of the apartheid system with a system of non-racial democracy.

"Anything that makes a positive contribution toward the exposure and overthrow of apartheid and which expresses support for a non-racial democracy must be supported. I hope that this distinction has been clarified, because I've read very often the tendency to identify the apartheid system with South Africa as a whole and then move on mechanically to a position of boycotting automatically anything from South Africa."

Randall Grass, a spokesman for Shanachie Records, says there has been no backlash or consumer resistance to buying South African music on philosophical grounds.

On the boycott issue, he said by phone from the company's office in New Jersey, "Our position is that this is great music that provides listeners around the world with insights into a culture that should be given attention and respect."

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