PAUL SIMON: THE WORLD IS HIS BEAT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York - Paul Simon, the pop star most likely to make the cover of National Geographic, is snug back in his native habitat this afternoon as a chilly squall blows pedestrians up Broadway far below his office window.

Even on a busy day, the mood is cool efficiency here at Simon Central, a maroon-carpeted suite of oak built-ins, glass brick and full-grown ficus trees in the Brill Building, the Pentagon of American popular music. A glass cabinet displays a dozen Grammy awards; gold and platinum records cover an entire wall.

And this is one busy day.

"Who's next?" asks Mr. Simon, 48, ushering a camera crew out of his inner office. Coffee mug in hand, he looks relaxed in boots, jeans and dark sweater.

Four years after redefining pop music with his amazing "Graceland," Mr. Simon has finally released his next album. It's time for a little spin control. Because "Graceland" was such a phenomenal success -- artistically, commercially, politically -- expectations for the new "Rhythm of the Saints" are higher than Mount Kilimanjaro.

"Graceland," after all, proved resoundingly the mainstream viability of "world beat" pop. It remained on the charts for nearly two years, sold more than nine million copies worldwide and won Mr. Simon his third album-of-the-year Grammy -- an achievement matched only by Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder.

"Rhythm of the Saints" is another intriguing fusion of Mr. Simon's cerebral songwriting with sounds from other continents -- this time underscoring his introspective wordplay with Afro-Brazilian drumming and West African guitar.

"The idea of combining those elements really came from something [Puerto Rican jazz pianist] Eddie Palmieri told me," Mr. Simon says. "He said, 'The Journey of the Drum goes with the slave trade, from West Africa to Brazil, then up the Caribbean.'

"That fit with something Quincy Jones had said when I was working on 'Graceland': 'The great African singers come from the south, but the great drummers come from [Africa's] west coast.' "

With those comments in mind, Mr. Simon traveled to Brazil four times in 1988 and '89 on the invitation of renowned Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento. There he found two groups whose sounds would provide the inspiration for "Rhythm of the Saints," much as the magnificent South African doo-wop choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo illuminated much of "Graceland."

The first, heard on the album's opening cut and first single, "The Obvious Child," is the 10-man ensemble Grupo Cultural Olodum (pronounced o-lo-DOOM), from the capital city of Salvador in the northern state of Bahia.

Olodum's rhythms are thousands of years old, yet they still are used in religious ceremonies in Africa -- and wherever the Journey of the Drum has carried them.

"It was almost accidental," Mr. Simon said. "I heard that they were going to be rehearsing there at night, in a square in the old part of town. So I went there with some friends and was just blown away by the sound.

"A day or two later we recorded them right there in the street, because there was no studio in Salvador that could hold 14 guys. We brought an eight-track machine up from Rio and set up the microphones on telephone poles and stuff like that."

In the "Graceland" sessions, Mr. Simon gathered some of Africa's top players in a South African studio, jammed with them until interesting grooves emerged, then refined the result into songs. This time he took the Brazilian drum tracks back home to New York.

For months, he listened. In time, melodies and even lyrics flowed from those insistent rhythms.

"I waited for the sounds of the drums and the melody to suggest the sound of words, and the words became sentences, and some of those sentences were interesting enough so that they stuck. And from there, by extension forward and back, I wrote the songs."

Those songs are full of the impressionistic imagery and elegant rhymes that made "Rhymin' Simon" one of the most successful singer-songwriters of the 1960s and '70s.

Before "Graceland," Mr. Simon was best known as the songwriting half of the folk-pop duo Simon & Garfunkel. Their music provided a gentle counterpoint to the acid-rock era with hits like "Sounds of Silence," "Homeward Bound" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

After splitting with Art Garfunkel in 1970, Mr. Simon scored solo hits like "Still Crazy After All These Years" and "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover."

Yet the two albums that preceded "Graceland" -- 1980's "One Trick Pony" and 1983's "Hearts & Bones" -- were commercial flops. In the mid-'80s, Mr. Simon recalls, he read a piece in the trade journal Billboard in which a radio programmer singled out Mr. Simon's music as an example of what radio considered passe.

That was demoralizing at first, especially since Mr. Simon's marriage to actress Carrie Fisher was falling apart at the same time. But ultimately, it proved to be liberating.

He found himself listening more and more to an unlabeled cassette of various township jive groups, given to him by a guitarist friend -- whom he ultimately had to call back and ask what the heck this music was.

"I was so excited by the music that it helped me get over the pressure of whether the record would sell," he said. "Since they had already written in Billboard that nobody was going to play me anyway, I thought, 'Fine, I'll just do what I want.' "

Like "Graceland," the new "Saints" proves that Paul Simon is still Paul Simon no matter what musical idiom he's exploring. And while these two albums are the most dramatic examples, he has actually been seeking out new styles his entire life.

As a kid in Queens, N.Y., Mr. Simon focused his radio listening on Yankees baseball games and the rock and roll shows of Alan Freed.

"Freed was only on six days a week, so on Sunday I would look for rock and roll on the radio, and the closest thing I could find to it was gospel, a church station," Mr. Simon recalls in Joe Smith's book "Off the Record." "I had never heard gospel music, but it sounded kind of close to what Alan Freed was playing."

Mr. Simon said his doo-wop songs like "Loves Me Like a Rock" were directly inspired by the vocal harmonies of '50s gospel groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds.

"They also inspired Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which is just THE great doo-wop group," he said.

Mr. Simon's first "collaboration" with Latin American musicians began in 1965. Roaming Europe in his pre-Garfunkel days, he found himself booked to play a folk concert in Paris. Also on the bill was a Peruvian group, Los Incas, who gave him an album of their music.

He was so taken with one song, "El Condor Pasa," that he wrote words for it and included it on the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" album (with the Los Incas album track as the background).

"Once I left Simon & Garfunkel, I was freer to go and pursue other sounds in their natural surroundings," he said. "The first time I actually went to a place to get a sound was 'Mother and Child Reunion.' I went to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1972 to record some ska rhythms. It was just as ska was turning into reggae, so we sort of stumbled into reggae."

He also followed those early radio memories to New Orleans to record with the Onward Brass Band. And to the soul mecca of Muscle Shoals, Ala.

In Africa, Mr. Simon found the fresh inspiration he was looking for after the disappointments of "One Trick Pony" and "Hearts & Bones." Although "Graceland" lacked the anti-apartheid sermonizing of Little Steven's "Sun City," merely making the album in South Africa with local musicians was a boldly political act.

Even though he paid the players triple scale and brought many of them worldwide attention, the album touched off a backlash from some who felt that Mr. Simon had violated the United Nations' cultural boycott of South Africa by traveling and working there.

Four years later, Mr. Simon remains sensitive to questions about American artists who cash in on other cultures.

"Cultures are like ideas," he said. "They don't have national boundaries, they go wherever that idea is going to be persuasive. You can't stop them."

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