Thursday, September 2, 2010

For a Song: Under African Skies

African Sky

Paul Simon: Under African Skies


It is probably fair to say that Paul Simon’s best known work as a solo artist is the album Graceland. In fact, it may even be better known now than his albums as half of Simon and Garfunkle. And for once, an artist’s best known work is also some of his best. I remember when Graceland first came out, and there had never been anything like it. The album inspired me to explore the music of South Africa as best I could without leaving home. Graceland made a little more sense then in some ways, but it still sounded unique. Amazingly, it still does. Of course, there were the hits. But the song that grabbed me from the first was Under African Skies, and this too has not changed for me.

Under African Skies is a pulsating ballad. It’s lyric contains a mystery: who is Joseph? My first thought was the Joseph of the bible, he of the dreamcoat. But the song says that he navigated “by the stars of the Southern hemisphere”, and the biblical Joseph never saw those stars. I don’t think Paul Simon is the kind of writer who would miss that sort of detail. So, that left a puzzle. I made my peace with it by deciding that maybe it doesn’t really matter. Maybe Joseph is just supposed to be an African everyman. Indeed, the song as a whole seems to be about an idealized version of African, viewed from a distance. But lately, another thought has come to me. Maybe Joseph is Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mombazo. They appear throughout the album, and I remember reading that Shabalala also served as Paul Simon’s first tour guide through South African music. Whatever the case, I think I’m happy not knowing the answer. The sense of mystery is part of the song’s appeal to me.