In the middle of a boisterous song on a glorious night in New York’s Central Park, Paul Simon sings a verse that references his transformative journey from teenage folkie to musical globe-trotter.
“A man walks down the street/It’s a street in a strange world,” he sings amid the bubbling percussion of “You Can Call Me Al.” “...He is a foreign man/He is surrounded by the sound, the sound.”
As documented in “Paul Simon: The Concert in Central Park,” a huge crowd dances with the 17 musicians and singers on stage in August 1991, Simon at the center of a party that fuses together the sounds of at least three continents. Yet the introspection at the heart of “You Can Call Me Al,” a deceptively off-handed song about a life-changing event, speaks to the moment when Simon, on a street in South Africa, saw his past and future intertwine.
As a kid growing up in Queens, Simon heard rhythms and sounds that hit him like a subway train: R&B, Southern soul, doo-wop, early rock ‘n’ roll — all pointed to faraway lands for their origin. As his songwriting evolved from folk songs modeled after the Everly Brothers to more rhythmically exciting compositions, he conjured and then repurposed the intoxicating sounds of his youth.
“Those sounds followed me the rest of my life,” he told me in a 1990 interview at his office on the fifth floor of the famed Brill Building in Manhattan. “There was a doo-wop record called ‘Florence’ by the Paragons that had a great beat, and then I heard the beat again when I first heard ska music while in England during the ‘60s, which I really liked. So for ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ (for his solo debut album in 1972), I went to Kingston, Jamaica to record with Jimmy Cliff’s band. By that time, ska had been replaced by reggae, so we used that rhythm instead.”
The pursuit of the undeniable and the exotic in rhythm became increasingly ingrained in Simon’s songwriting, which made masterpieces such as his 1986 album “Graceland” and its 1990 follow-up, “The Rhythm of the Saints,” feel inevitable, if still astonishing, when they arrived. Up until then, Simon would occasionally collaborate with musicians or singers steeped in a particular style or culture, but not for an entire album.
‘There’s something about recording in the studio that the guys are comfortable with, something about the atmosphere in the air of the studio.’
“I learned that to get a particular groove, you have to go to the people who are doing it,” Simon said in the 1990 interview. “There’s something about recording in the studio that the guys are comfortable with, something about the atmosphere in the air of the studio. You take them out of that atmosphere, and the sound you’re looking for may disappear.”
For “Graceland,” Simon immersed himself in South African music and recorded with a variety of local musicians for several weeks in Johannesburg. It was a bold move musically, and a controversial one politically, because Simon technically violated a United Nations cultural boycott against the South African government over apartheid. The South African black musicians union welcomed Simon’s visit in the belief that it would expand the audience for their music internationally. Simon paid the musicians triple scale for the sessions, shared songwriting credits and invited several back to New York for further recording sessions.
In 1988, at the behest of Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento, Simon traveled to Brazil to further dig into the rhythmic and sonic roots of the music that had captivated him since childhood. The visit became the genesis of “The Rhythm of the Saints,” a sequel of sorts to “Graceland” in the way it blended American music and art-song lyrics with complex yet ebullient rhythms and mystical, centuries-old sonic textures.
The next step was to figure out a way to adapt this ambitious musical hybrid onto the stage. The 1986-87 ‘’Graceland’’ tour saw a 10-piece band and a number of South African singers and musicians such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo focus squarely on the new album while paying little attention to Simon’s previous work. For the “Born at the Right Time” tour that landed in Central Park in 1991, Simon wanted something more. He put together a multinational 17-piece band drawing from Africa and Brazil as well as American musicians. The ensemble mixed jazz, Cajun, soul, rock and indigenous styles: the finger-picked electric guitars of West Africa, the surging polyrhythms of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music. This one-of-a-kind group wouldn’t just take on a 25-year, career-spanning survey of Simon’s hits, lost classics and new works, it would in many cases reinterpret it.
This is a dance party for a rainbow coalition of participants.
In Central Park, “’Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” originally a showcase for the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, becomes a gospel-infused percussion workout. Armand Sabal-Lecco’s syncopated bass riff transforms “Kodachrome.” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” evokes a jaunty accordion-driven zydeco shuffle. Simon even tinkers with the Simon and Garfunkel standard “Bridge over Troubled Water,” as it shifts from a stately gospel rhythm to a reggae. Simon is more of a conductor, an orchestrator, rather than a showman, but there’s plenty to look at, from the uninhibited dancing in the audience to Ray Phiri’s rubber-legged grace on guitar and percussionist Mingo Araujo’s acrobatic kicks in mid-solo. This is a dance party for a rainbow coalition of participants.
The merger of African rhythms with those from South and North American music envisioned by Simon and his band might have seemed like a daunting challenge, but Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista once told me there is only “a hair`s difference” among the various shades of rhythms used in the show, including African mokassa, Brazilian samba and American R&B.
“One person has made a skeleton of a picture, and has handed brushes to all these other people,” Phiri told me in a 1991 interview. “We have been chosen to add colors to Paul`s original painting. At the end of the day, people are starting to say, ‘Yeah, this makes sense.’ A few years ago, many wouldn’t have understood this music because they would have tried to label it. But people are seeing beyond that now. They are dancing and enjoying themselves. The world is hoping for one language we can all understand. This music makes me think that will happen.”
That’s apparent from the outset at the Central Park show. On his Brazilian sojourn for the “The Rhythm of the Saints,” Simon recorded local rhythm sections in full roar, including the 14-member band Olodum in Salvador. No local studio was big enough to accommodate that many players, so producer Roy Halee set up his microphones in the town square and recorded the percussionists on eight-track tape. A portion of that 45-minute recording would go on to underpin “The Obvious Child,” the album’s leadoff track and the lead-in to the “Born at the Right Time” concerts.
In Central Park, Olodum provides a thundering introduction, a legion of percussionists roaring behind Simon’s band to create a river of rhythm. The impressionistic lyrics address mortality. They are erudite, introspective. Yet they sound almost joyous amid these elastic and ecstatic beats. A furious percussion break ushers in a wordless vocal melody, and sound melds with sense. Head, heart and hips become one.