I was born in 1946, in the Republic of Panama (Central America), one year after the Second World War ended. I was raised in a banana plantation owned by United Brands in a place called Changuinola on the Atlantic Coast. Back then, United Brands exported Chiquita bananas to the United States, mainly to the port of New Orleans. My father worked as a Commissary Inspector in the Merchandise Department, which gave us the opportunity to study in the same schools where American children got their education.
At age six, I was reading the same books American students read in the U.S. For example, I remember studying English using the green and red books of Dick, Jane and Sally. I recall reading about a black-and-white dog named Spot and a brown teddy bear named Tim. All our teacher were contracted in the United States to work in Changuinola using the same educational system used by the State of Massachusetts.
Being raised in an American community, very similar to the Panama Canal Zone, I was directly exposed to the American culture. We watched the same movies and listened to the same pop songs popular in Continental United States at that time. I had a crush on Doris Day and admired the way British actor Dick Bogarde performed. He was so distinguished!
I was raised listening to the music of Elvis Presley, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Beatles, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, and Simon & Garfunkel. I really enjoyed Simon & Garfunkel, and was fixated to songs like “I Am A Rock” and “The Sounds of Silence”. I could listen forever to the lyrics of Graceland. While this isn’t really by definition a “concept album”, I love how some of the songs on this album evoke a deep southern feeling, gradually moving to African beats, and then again to the nostalgic deep south moods.
Paul Simon surrounded himself with some amazing and contrasting musicians from South Africa and America like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Yousou N’dour, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and many others. He felt equally at ease with traditional American instruments as well as exotic African musical instruments. In my opinion, Paul Simon greatly contributed to expose the racial problems of South Africa’s “apartheid” by bringing their music to the world’s scenarios.
I think Paul Simon’s concerts in South Africa, and Americans hearing the music from Africa did a lot to get people to start thinking that something had to be done. Apartheid started to unravel in the early 90s with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. By 1994, South Africa held it’s first democratic elections, when all races were able to vote. Artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo were instrumental in the struggle against apartheid.
Of his many concert appearances, Paul Simon is most fond of two concerts held in Central Park in New York (with his partner and childhood friend Art Garfunkel in 1981 and as a solo artist in 1991) and the series of shows he did at the invitation of Nelson Mandela in South Africa: the first American artist to perform in post-apartheid South Africa.
During his distinguished career, Paul Simon has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including 12 Grammy Awards, three of which (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Graceland”) were albums of the year. In 2003 he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as half of the duo Simon and Garfunkel.
He is an inductee of The Songwriters Hall of Fame and is in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame both as a member of Simon and Garfunkel and as a solo artist. His song “Mrs. Robinson” from the motion picture “The Graduate” was named in the top ten of The American Film Institute’s 100 Years 100 Songs. He was a recipient of The Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and was named as one of Time Magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World” in 2006.
I would like to single out four songs which are a breath of fresh air due to the beauty of the music “per se” , as well as the lyrics of the songs. I encourage you to listen to all four of them, you won’t be disappointed. These are:
- Me And Julio Down by the School Yard
- You Can Call Me Al
- Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
You can easily notice the influence of the Southern Americana feel as well as the African rhythms in these awesome songs. I could listen to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” over and over again in an endless loop. For your ready reference, by clicking here, you can read the lyrics of this authentic African song.
IMHO, Paul Simon is an American icon. His legacy in deeply embedded in the American culture, just like Apple, Coca Cola, hamburgers, 4th of July fireworks, or a sizzling summer barbecue.
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