Under African Skies


To think even a little bit about the biological roots of humanity as we emerged from the Olduvai gorge in eastern Africa requires at this stage of exploration some significant simplification because we just do not understand enough to see the forest and the trees, to move among levels of detail with any assured guidance. Take music, for example. I recently had the pleasure of seeing on public TV a documentary, Under African Skies, about Paul Simon’s album, Graceland, and the political furor surrounding it. I remember Graceland coming out quite clearly and marveling at it but had no idea until this week how difficult it was to make. In short, Paul Simon broke the UN cultural boycott to go there and make this album. He seemed to have done so with good intentions but naively and he has been castigated on many counts for this. The documentary does a good and balanced job of showing the basis for the criticisms as well as the role of the artist in transcending in some manner political strife.

We do not have any good real understanding of the brain basis for art in general and music in particular. We have studied some aspects of how the brain processes the psychoacoustic information in musical notes, melody, and rhythm and the neurological differences between accomplished musicians and the rest of us. We know very little about how we produce music vocally and instrumentally that is aesthetically pleasing to listeners, how music carries such complexities of feelings, how it goes on to function socially and culturally, and how it, like all good art, is in some real sense transcendent.

For Graceland in particular we recognize implicitly the African rhythms and harmonies in the guitar licks played by Ray Phiri and in the magnificent vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Of course much of American music incorporates and is influenced by these African roots. And of course our paleoarcheology indicates that Homo sapiens originated in Africa. Two moments in the film, Under African Skies, stand out. One is when Paul Simon articulates how politicians, especially in this country, along with their shadowy masters in the rich and powerful, treat artists as their handmaidens, so that artists, true artists, must work hard to assert their independence as a powerful cultural force. Art is a means of truth seeking equal to government, religion, science, etc. The second moment is when Paul Simon and Dali Tambo, who was one of the leaders from the ANC who led the cultural boycott to force the end to apartheid, reconciled their viewpoints, one based on the necessary transcendence of art and the other on the necessary struggle to end an utterly inhumane system of government, through their expressions of mutual respect and understanding. That beautiful flower comes from very deep roots.

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