Bakithi Kumalo, bass player in Paul Simon’s band, was responsible for the bass solo in the song You Can Call Me Al, the first single from Paul Simon’s Graceland album.
Released in 1986, Graceland remains today one of the most ground-breaking, important pop albums of all time.
The album topped the charts in eight different countries, including Canada (it peaked at number three on the Billboard U.S. chart), and earned Simon Grammy Awards for Album of the Year (1987) and Record of the Year (1988).
More importantly, though, Simon’s landmark album introduced listeners across the globe to what is known as world music.
Simon involved a number of African musicians and singers in the recording of the album. For many in the western world, Graceland was their first exposure to Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Gaza Sisters, Ray Phiri and Youssou N’Dour. Graceland was one of three or four key albums that helped to popularize African music outside of that continent.
Simon’s insistence, however, on recording much of the album in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the height of apartheid, was deemed controversial by many. By 1986, myriad artists had banded together to boycott the country due to apartheid’s sanctioned racial segregation, and political and economic discrimination against nonwhites.
Twenty-five years after the recording of that album, the documentary film Under African Skies was released, in conjunction with a 25th anniversary edition of Graceland.
The film documents the circumstances surrounding the landmark collection of songs, under the shadow of an uneasy political and cultural climate.
Niagara residents will have the chance to meet Bakithi Kumalo for a special screening of the film on Nov. 7 at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library. It’s part of the Voices of Freedom Festival, which is, in turn, part of the annual Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts.
Co-founder of the festival, Alexis Spieldenner, says “the Voices of Freedom Festival was founded to raise awareness of the Niagara Region’s significant Black history, but it has grown to become an important platform for many different underrepresented histories and peoples. The festival gives voice to music that was borne out of oppression and highlights the ongoing journey to freedom.”
Under African Skies, with Kumalo introducing the film, fits right into that description.
Kumalo has been the bassist in Simon’s touring band since those Graceland days. It was during Simon’s 2018 Farewell Tour that Spieldenner and her mother, Bravo co-founder Christine Mori met with him, and expressed their interest in inviting him to be a part of this year’s Voices of Freedom Festival.
In this, the fourth year for Voices of Freedom, having an artist of Kumalo’s stature as part of the festival’s outreach program is a huge boost.
At the library, Kumalo will be sharing his own story about growing up under apartheid, and commenting on the film’s depiction of the reunion of many of the original musicians 25 years after the recording.
Spieldenner describes the film as a reflection on Graceland, and says Kumalo will talk about his “discovery” by Paul Simon and the overall impact of the music on people around the world.
The film does not skirt around the issues inherent to the times. Simon suffered backlash from many, who accused him of breaking the United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to put pressure on the regime to end apartheid.
In addition to his appearance at the film screening, Kumalo will be meeting and playing with students of Laura Secord Secondary School’s music department that afternoon as part of the Voices of Freedom outreach program. This session is open to the public, as well.
As Spieldenner says, Bravo Niagara! “strives to produce extraordinary concert experiences, as well as to connect communities through the power of music, and to inspire a life-long appreciation of music.”
Kumalo will be playing bass with the Larnell Lewis Band on Friday, Nov. 8, as they open for Monty Alexander and his Harlem-Kingston Express.
The Laura Secord students will also perform with Lewis’ band that evening. That show takes place at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.
Also happening in NOTL on Saturday, Nov. 9 is the Artists and Activists Roundtable at the Niagara Historical Museum on Castlereagh Street.
Participants in the roundtable include Kumalo, producer and artist manager Céline Peterson, and Stanford Thompson, founder and executive director of the El Sistema-inspired organization Play On, Philly!, which has brought social transformation to several million disadvantaged children around the world through music.
The focus of the roundtable will be exploring the role of artists in society and the historic and present-day intersection of music and social change.
Seats are still available for the film screening, the roundtable and the Friday evening concert.
Visit bravoniagara.org to reserve tickets.