Paul Simon has always known the power of music.
The singer-songwriter, who will be in concert tonight at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater, was a sixth-grader in Queens, N.Y., when he teamed up with Art Garfunkel a gangly kid who lived three blocks away because he noticed that girls were attracted by Garfunkel s ability to sing.
In 1964, Simon used his songwriting skills to make a social statement with He Was My Brother, a song he wrote in honor of a friend killed in U.S. civil rights riots.
His ear for crafting melodies and his poet s touch with words and stories proved a powerful combination that elevated Simon & Garfunkel to the heights of the folk-rock world in the late 1960s, recording such classics as Sounds of Silence, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and The Boxer.
Simon also knew when his music career had given him enough power to let him go his own way, and he split with Garfunkel for a solo career in 1970.
As a solo artist, Simon released such brilliant folk-pop tunes as Kodachrome, Loves Me Like a Rock, Still Crazy After All These Years, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, and Slip Sliding Away.
Then, in the summer of 1984, Simon discovered the sounds of Soweto the funky world music from the streets of South Africa, a nation that was still under Apartheid s rule of racial oppression and segregation.
He began working with South African musicians in recording his landmark 1986 album, Graceland, infusing his own white folk pop with the earthy rhythms, twangy guitars, and joyous harmonies of African culture.
The music had a new kind of power, one that could shake the foundations of the oppressors.
In 1987, Simon staged a concert in Harare, Zimbabwe, before a mixed-race audience of 45,000 people. Among his guest artists were trumpeter Hugh Masekela and singer Miriam Makeba, both of whom had been banned from South Africa for their political views.
When he turned the spotlight over to Masekela to lead the way on Bring Him Back Home, Masekela stood with a fist raised high, then sang about the day Nelson Mandela would be set free.
Mandela, the anti-Apartheid activist, was released in 1990 after 27 years behind bars and was elected president of South Africa. Apartheid was abolished in 1991.
Simon also used his creative powers and $11 million of his own money to write and produce a Broadway musical, The Capeman, although it closed soon after it opened in 1998.
At 64, Simon is still pursuing new musical adventures, the latest being his new disc, Surprise, released in May on the Warner Bros. label.
Simon s first studio recording in six years, Surprise is an intriguing blend of Simon s classic folk-pop melodies and literate lyrics, painted with the electronic brush of musician-producer Brian Eno, the studio guru whose many collaborations include albums by U2, Talking Heads, Jane Siberry, Genesis, and Laurie Anderson.
This album comes out of an aesthetic and a value system that goes back to the Sixties and before, Simon writes in a press release. Contemporary popular music doesn t sound like this. Hip-hop and rap have their own sound, so does punk. For the songwriters who came out of my generation, I think this album is a continuation of that aesthetic. The structures sound very different, but it comes out of my generation s point of view. This is one place music can go if you don t want to give up on it.
The disc does contain a few surprises, including the introspective That s Me, in which the singer-songwriter seems to be assessing his life s journey and being way too harsh.
I am walking up the face of the mountain, counting every step I climb, he sings. Remembering the names of the constellations. Forgotten is a long, long time. That s me.
The song s lyrics appear to show that the 12-time Grammy Award winner is as demanding of himself as he is of those with whom he works.
Simon also gets political with Wartime Prayer and takes a heartwarming look at multicultural adoptions on Beautiful.
One musician who can testify to Simon s perfectionist tendencies is Bakithi Kumalo, a bass player from Soweto who has been working with Simon for two decades.
Paul Simon that man saved my life, said Kumalo, who will be on stage tonight with Simon. I give him credit and he deserves even more credit.
Kumalo said Simon came to South Africa when the time was a little shaky and gave the unknown bass player the opportunity of a lifetime.
I was born in the 50s and I remember Apartheid, said Kumalo, who moved to New York in 1993 while touring with Masekela.
It was just something I could not understand. I saw people getting killed in front of my eyes. Just a horrible life. You could be sleeping, in the middle of the night, and the police come and wake people up and count them. If they don t have the right papers or something like that, they get in trouble. I didn t think I would live this long.
Kumalo was featured on five songs on Graceland, including the title track, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, and You Can Call Me Al, and has worked with Simon ever since.
When it comes time to rehearse for a concert tour, he said Simon will settle for nothing less than perfection.
The band leader knows exactly what he wants to hear, articulates clearly and patiently to everyone how to make it happen, and then practices every song over and over until the tempo, harmony, tone, and textures are just right.
Oh man, it s a long day, Kumalo said with a laugh. You can work on one song for, like, five hours. He wants to make sure everybody s playing the right part.
The driving force behind Simon s arrangements is to match the music with the story behind the lyrics, Kumalo said.
He s amazing. He s like a teacher because he makes everybody understand what the story s all about. He ll say, OK, this is the song and this is how you have to play.
Working with Simon is different than with any other musicians with whom Kumalo has played, including Herbie Hancock, Randy Brecker, the Grateful Dead, Gloria Estefan, and Chaka Khan.
You can t change a part or make a mistake. He knows, Kumalo said. You ll finish rehearsing a song and he ll say, Did you just change the part? Sorry, Paul, it was a mistake. He s very disciplined. He s just amazing.
And besides the singing, his rhythm and chords [on guitar], they just go with the story. The music matches his story.
Kumalo, who recently released his fourth CD as a solo artist, Transmigration, on the Guru Project label, said Simon usually is more relaxed once the concert tour begins. By then, the musicians have practiced their parts until they ve got them down pat.
He gets a little more comfortable because everybody knows what we re doing. It s the same show every night, Kumalo said.
But Simon also demands that his band members maintain a high level of energy on stage each night.
You can t hang out and party all night and then wake up the next day, dragging. He ll look you in your eyes and say, OK, I know you look tired.
It s not necessarily a bad thing, Kumalo said. Simon s high standards have inspired him to work out, exercise, and eat well.
Paul Simon, he s like my health doctor, too, Kumalo said.
Several hundred tickets for Paul Simon's show were still available late last week. They are $55, $75, and $89.50 and can only be purchased at the Broadway entrance to the zoo. Dobro player Jerry Douglas is the opening act for the 7:30 p.m. show.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.
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