Rhythms of Brazil, West Africa infuse Paul Simon's new album

October 16, 1990|By Tom Moon | Tom Moon,Knight-Ridder

NEW YORK -- Ethno-musicologists will recognize the cadences of Brazilian tribal drumming.

Fans of Afropop will identify the shimmering, interlocking lines of the West African guitarists.

And those who pay attention to lyrics will appreciate the terse phrases, the sudden shifts of perspective, the rhythmic rightness of the lines.

But none of them will be able to call "The Rhythm of the Saints," Paul Simon's long-awaited new album being released today, exclusively their own.

For a poet and a one-man band whose aural palette now includes pan pipes, talking drums and other elements of world music, this represents something of a victory.

Sitting in his comfortable, wood-trimmed office in the corner of the Brill Building, Simon looks out at Times Square and recalls the hue and cry that accompanied the 1986 release of "Graceland," which fused American pop with South African mbquanga music. He doesn't want this sumptuous record to be as easy to pin down. He likes the fact that people won't be able to figure it out in one sitting.

Though he admits being anxious -- he's doing the interviews and photo sessions as a way to "numb" himself before the onslaught of critical analysis that will accompany the album's release -- Simon exudes a sense of accomplishment. He has created something that is more than just an interesting idea. "Rhythm" is not the obvious child of "Graceland." Nor is it a same-tricks-different-continent ploy.

No, "The Rhythm of the Saints" is more diffuse. It's not all Brazil or all Africa; not all happiness or all heartbreak. It is less absolute than most pop music, less sure of things, and as a result it seems wiser. The 10 songs find Simon, who turned 49 last Saturday, waxing on death, abandoned children, the environment and love from a variety of perspectives. "Circling the subject" is how he describes his lyrical approach, which brings spiritual dilemmas closer to the surface, coaxed by the gentle slapping of hand-drum percussion.

Where before his voice rode atop the established conventions of South African pop, here it insinuates itself into a beat Simon helped create. Though based on trance-like Brazilian momentum, the rhythm has powerful undercurrents that can hint at African polyrhythm or New Orleans shuffle or any of the dance rhythms in between.

"The idea started with something Quincy Jones said to me during 'Graceland,'" Simon recalled, "about how the great singers come from the south of Africa, but the great drummers and instrumentalists come from the west coast of Africa. The path taken by the drum is similar to the African experience in the west. It follows the diaspora from the west coast of Africa to Brazil, up to the Caribbean and eventually into Louisiana."

The drum is the most important instrument on "Rhythm." "Some of these drum patterns are hundreds of years old. Whether we know it or not, we all are affected by the culture that surrounds us American popular music is primarily African-American in origin. These drums, in their pure form, had a hypnotic effect. They were used to bring people to a state where they could more easily access the spiritual aspects of their existance."

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