The Elvis Presley question brought home to Paul Simon just how absurd he felt things had become.

The writer of such contemporary pop classics as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has for months been trying to explain with great care the reasons he recorded part of his “Graceland” album in South Africa.

Simon, 45, outlined his new-found enthusiasm for that region’s lively, unpredictable rhythms in numerous interviews when the LP was released last year.

Then, he defended himself against charges that he had violated a cultural boycott against South Africa by recording with black musicians in Johannesburg.

Even though the U.N. Special Committee on Apartheid cleared him of any misconduct weeks ago, he continues to be embroiled in a debate about the role of art in politics.


Simon shares the anti-apartheid views of many of the politically conscious observers who are criticizing him, but he refuses to turn himself or his art over to any sociopolitical crusade. He brands most political pop as “pretentious.”

So, the battle lines have been drawn. Among hostile questions hurled at Simon during press conferences in conjunction with his recent European concerts:

Is this simply another case of a white pop star exploiting black musicians?

If you really are appalled by apartheid, why didn’t you include at least one anti-apartheid song on the album?

But nothing epitomized what Simon calls “political heckling” more than the Presley question. It popped up midway through a frequently stormy press conference the night before the first of his two landmark concerts at Rufaro Stadium here last weekend.

The phrasing of the question was a bit fuzzy, but it went something like this: How--after recording an album with black musicians--could he be so insensitive as to name the record after Presley’s home--a name that reflects the slave-owner tradition of the American South?

Simon appeared dumbfounded. Was he hearing right?

First, Simon explained, the song “Graceland” is not about Presley’s home. It’s a metaphor representing a search for inner peace.

Besides, he continued, Presley’s home wasn’t some Antebellum plantation. It was built in 1939 by a chiropractor who named the house in honor of his wife, Grace.

Simon shook his head as if to say, “Is this guy joking?”

Apparently not--and neither was the fiery guest columnist the next morning in the local newspaper.

Simon may have been as much amused as frustrated by the Presley question, but the guest column in the Zimbabwe Herald was a jolt. The writer, still upset at what he felt was a violation of the cultural boycott, urged all “politically conscious” people to stay away from Simon’s shows.

Before the morning sound check at the outdoor soccer stadium, Simon stood on stage sipping some coffee and reading the article. He was not happy. The songwriter and others in the tour party had been nervous about security. One reason they had come to Zimbabwe rather than other neighboring southern African countries was because it offered the best guarantee against incidents. Simon felt that there was an incendiary edge to the newspaper column.

Tossing it aside, he said, “The reason I worked so hard to make my position clear was that it is a complex issue and I thought that some people might be confused.

“But I realize now that there really isn’t a misunderstanding anymore. We just have a disagreement over my role. To some (extremists in the anti-apartheid movement) the album is of no value except as something to attack.

“So, we’ll just continue to disagree, because I’m not going to begin writing protest songs for them. I’m also not going to raise my fist and say ‘Follow me.’ It’s not my style.”

(For the views of Simon’s critics, see Steve Hochman’s story on Page 61).

After the sound check, Simon stood backstage as the stadium gates were opened. The first fans were racing across the grass to get to spots closest to the stage. The shows would turn out to be the biggest gatherings by far of a racially mixed crowd in Zimbabwe since the country’s independence ceremony in the same stadium seven years ago.

“There are often political implications in cultural events,” Simon said, “but I think it’s important to maintain the integrity of art--and not let it be swept away by politics.

“Pop music is usually so pretentious when it tries to be political. That’s because it usually operates on the most naive level. I’ve said it before: If your awareness of the world is based on pop music, you’re probably not very aware.”

“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” Simon sang to cheering crowds of 20,000 and 14,000 respectively in the shows here last Saturday and Sunday.

The words, from the “Graceland” album, were written about the contrast between advances in science and the continuing primitiveness of social relations.

Yet the lyrics served as an ideal reflection on what Simon has put together in the “Graceland” tour: an ambitious mix of music, culture and, yes, politics.

Musically, this is one of the most satisfying pop ventures of the ‘80s: a warm, enriching and entertaining blend of Simon’s Western pop craft and the inviting and varied traditional music of South Africa. Many of the musicians on the tour--including Ray Phiri and the 10-member gospel-flavored a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo--worked with Simon on the album, arguably the best studio LP of 1986.

“Graceland” is nominated in four categories--including best album--in Tuesday night’s Grammy Awards. Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo will open the Grammy show by performing “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” from the album, and the whole troupe opens a five-night Universal Amphitheatre engagement March 3.

Culturally, Simon is sending a message that Western pop has operated for too long in isolation. “I feel like an expatriate musically,” he said during the weekend. “I really think the most interesting music--certainly the freshest--is coming from outside the U.S.”

Long before “Graceland,” Simon was researching for new and inviting musical strains. He turned to Peru for some regional color on Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” in 1970, and to Jamaica for reggae accents on his solo “Mother and Child Reunion” two years later.

Nothing, however, came close to the full-fledged cultural ambition and accomplishment of the new album, and there are already signs of increased focus on South African music in the United States.

Politically, Simon made a statement against apartheid by using the South Africans on the album. He made a second strong if subtle statement by touring with an almost exclusively South African band (two of the 24 musicians on the tour are from other parts of Africa).

And, he guaranteed a more visible political component by inviting South African exiles Miriam Makeba, a singer who was introduced to U.S. audiences in the late ‘50s by singer Harry Belafonte, and jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Both are articulate and outspoken foes of apartheid, and they express their feelings in their music and in interviews.

Most dramatically, Simon took this multiracial show and dropped it on South Africa’s doorstep.

Simon is too smart not to have known that his trip to record in South Africa would raise questions. Belafonte, he said, urged him to bring the musicians to New York or London to record rather than go there. That’s what he eventually did, shifting to his home base of New York after finding the players he wanted and cutting five tracks with them in Johannesburg. But since he had fallen in love with the music, he saw nothing wrong with going there in the first place to explore making an album.

After all, he figured, the boycott was built around the concept of not performing there, and Simon had shown his support of the boycott by twice turning down offers to play in Sun City. The boycott didn’t say anything about recording in South Africa.

(During his much-publicized debate over the boycott last month at Howard University, Simon, a Jew, was asked by an outraged black student how he would have felt if a black musician went to Nazi Germany in the ‘30s to make a record. Putting the question in what he felt was proper perspective, Simon replied, “You mean to play with Jewish musicians?”)

But Simon never anticipated the hostility that the recording project would cause in some quarters. Writing in England’s New Musical Express, pop critic Stuart Cosgrove declared, “ ‘Graceland’ is possibly the most arrogant record made this decade because it assures that white liberal-humanism knows better than the ANC (the African National Congress, South Africa’s outlawed anti-government organization). Irrespective of its musical merits, ‘Graceland’ is a scab album.” Cosgrove suggests that it is playing into the hands of the white government by suggesting that the government has allowed multiracial recording.

Hugh Masekela all but snarled at the suggestion that Simon is playing into the hands of the South African government.

The trumpeter, who was born about 100 miles from Johannesburg, left South Africa in the early ‘70s and has lived in exile since. During the plane ride here from London, Masekela criticized what he called the liberal armchair attitude.

“I’m talking about people who sit up in the bleachers and comment on the action on the field without paying (an adequate) admission fee. It’s time for deeds, not just observation. I think it’s a great thing for Paul to go to South Africa, to seek out the music that moved him and then record an album like “Graceland.” It opens a door to the world to South African musicians who are victimized in their own land. To say we should boycott those musicians is to make them victimized twice.”

Most of the other musicians on the flight, including Simon, were asleep, but Makeba and Masekela were too excited about the prospect of returning so close to home.

“There’s no way the South African government can take comfort in this record because it demonstrates to the world the talent and spirit of people who don’t enjoy freedom in their homeland,” Masekela said.

“The question a lot of people who are touched by this music are going to ask is, ‘How is it possible in this day and age that something as ugly as apartheid can still exist?’ ”

“Graceland” has been the biggest-selling record in Harare since Christmas--at least at the Singalong Record Shop downtown. Harare is Zimbabwe’s capital, a city of 500,000 people with a clean, highly Westernized shopping area that is highlighted by a palm-lined pedestrian-only business section.

Singalong is around the corner from that shopping street, on Stanley Avenue. Records there cost about $9 (which is high, given the generally lower income scale), and they arrive months after their release in the United States. Posters of Huey Lewis, Genesis and Lionel Richie hang on the walls. The store carries about 300 titles, maybe 75 of them by South African or Zimbabwean artists. Reggae from Jamaica is also a big favorite here.

Everest Chitagu, the cheerful shop manager, said “Graceland” has encouraged white buyers for the first time to check out some of the black groups from the area.

“For years they (whites) never bothered with the local albums because they didn’t figure they’d be any good,” said Chitagu, who is black. “They weren’t exposed to the music because they never went to the black clubs.

“But now we have whites coming in and asking for Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other musicians on the record. It’s a real breakthrough. . . .”

Harare doesn’t just get albums late. It also gets movies late. Showing at the first-run theaters here last weekend: “The Color Purple,” “White Knights” and the Divine Western epic “Lust in the Dust.”

The timely booking award, however, went to the Rainbow Theater, where on Friday the 13th the attraction was “Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning.”

If the topicality of the booking alone wasn’t enough of a lure, the Rainbow ad in the Herald tried to seduce customers in the best Hollywood tradition: “If Jason still haunts you, you are not alone! The saga continues! Best horror movie yet!”

Simon’s concert Saturday was an unqualified triumph. Simon’s music, mostly drawn from “Graceland,” was even more richly appealing than on record, thanks in large part to the peppy, distinctive guitar work of Phiri and the who-can-resist playfulness of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Yet the audience went away feeling good about more than just the music. The harmony between the races in this massive public gathering was cited by the fans interviewed during the day.

Ronit Loewenstern, 33, a white free-lance journalist who was born here, was most intrigued by the social angle.

“It was a remarkable day,” she said Sunday, recalling the opening afternoon. “There was a real nice mix: kids, adults, blacks, whites, new-wave, young Afro haircuts.

“I think part of it was the music itself. It’s the first time someone has taken African music and Westernized it . . . so that it appealed to everyone. That’s what brought everybody together. People have maintained that we had good race relations in Zimbabwe, but nothing has dramatized it as well as these concerts.”

Sitting backstage Sunday, Miriam Makeba, too, was touched by the racial makeup of the audience--about 60% black and 40% white on Saturday.

“The crowd was so beautiful,” she said, sitting on a chair next to an old-fashioned two-wheel trailer that served as a dressing room. “I came out on stage and saw the stadium packed with black and white people, and it was like the dream that I have carried around with me for years.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Why can’t it be like this in South Africa?’ And then I was filled with tears. I’ve got to think it will happen back home some day. . . . There was a time when nobody thought it would ever happen in this country, but it did.”

Makeba, who now lives in Guinea, has been called “Mama Africa,” for her singing and her role as a spokeswoman for her people. She was awarded the 1986 Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize. During the weekend she was constantly being asked for interviews by the more than 70 reporters who covered the concerts--the biggest press turnout here in years, a government aide said.

One thing she was asked about repeatedly was Simon and his music.

“First I loved the album. . . . The rhythm is very South African. Where he puts the melody is a little strange to our ears, but not strange to the ears of others.”

Makeba, whose autobiography is scheduled to be published this year, said the occasional testiness of the press conference here didn’t surprise her.

“We’ve been getting some of that since London,” she said. “They keep asking him, ‘What’s in this for you, what are you getting out of it?’ They’re talking about money. When I would tour with Belafonte we did lots of press conferences and no one ever asked him that kind of question. I thought it was a very racist question.”

Sunday’s show started off strong musically, but there simply wasn’t the same high-pitched emotion in the stadium. After the heady exhilaration of Saturday, the second show was an anticlimax. The concert’s momentum, too, was interrupted when Simon and Ladysmith had to repeat two numbers for the video crew (the concerts were taped for a 90-minute Showtime cable TV special scheduled for broadcast this spring).

Still, there was almost a glow around the city Monday. A black cab driver reminisced about the time he first heard Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” a decade ago, and how he had never dreamed he would be able to see Simon in person--in Harare. “Tell me,” the driver said, “do you think he’ll come back? I’d like to hear more of the old songs.”

A white shopkeeper showed customers an autographed poster from the concert. No, he said, it’s not Simon’s autograph, but one of the singers in Ladysmith. “I’m hoping to go over to the hotel later today and see if I can get Mr. Simon to sign it. Do you think I can just call his room?”

At the offices of the Zimbabwe Herald on 2nd Street, a secretary smiled shyly when someone heard her singing “The Boxer” quietly to herself. It was one of the two pre-"Graceland” songs Simon sang at Rufaro.

Despite the boycott column, the Herald’s review of the concert was glowing. “Graceland Concert Holds Crowd Spellbound,” declared the headline on David Masunda’s review. At his desk Monday, Masunda said the boycott column represented a very limited view. He didn’t even know the identity of the writer of the piece--which appeared in a guest columnist’s spot called My Turn.

He said there was some talk of a boycott when the concert was first announced, but that Simon’s recent apology for going to South Africa was accepted.

(Simon disputes reports that he apologized to the U.N. committee, saying he merely sent a letter to the committee expressing his longstanding opposition to apartheid. “I do not feel I have anything to apologize for,” he said here.)

Over at Singalong Records, “Graceland” was playing in the store--and manager Chitagu was on the phone ordering more copies. He was also ordering more records by Ladysmith and Stimela, guitarist Phiri’s band, which played a set on Sunday’s bill.

“People have been calling all morning asking if we have the records,” he said. “Customers who already have ‘Graceland’ are asking when there will be more--when they can get a ‘Graceland Two.’ ”

The Singalong staff better not start taking orders on that album.

Simon took his teen-age son, Harper, and other members of the touring party on a sightseeing trip Monday to Victoria Falls, and he was exhausted by the time the flight for London left at 10:15 p.m.

Simon’s shy, almost formal manner can be mistaken for aloofness and arrogance, but he’s a witty conversationalist and a good host. Unlike many performers who all but ignore their band members, Simon appeared to enjoy their company, and he visited frequently with them during the weekend.

Still, he doubts that there will be a “Graceland Two.” Sitting in a window seat next to Harper as the plane headed into the African sky, he said, “My feeling is that I should move on. . . . I know ‘Graceland Two’ would be a smart thing to do career-wise, but I’m not big on doing things for that reason. The last time I did something like that . . . the (Simon & Garfunkel) reunion, it was one of my worst mistakes. I don’t mean the Central Park show, but the tour.”

Simon looked out as the lights of Harare faded in the distance.

“I still remember flying into Johannesburg thinking I might just get enough for one track. I had no idea it would end up the basis for an album and that we’d be touring.

“I get the idea that some people think I came up with this clever idea and raced down here before everyone else. . . . The truth is most people at the record company thought it was a terrible idea . . . that I was drifting even further from the (commercial mainstream) than I had done with (the album) ‘Hearts and Bones.’ Now, of course, everyone says, ‘Great idea, Paul.’ ”

Later, Simon’s reading light was the only one still on in the first-class cabin. In the row behind him across the way, Masekela was asleep in an aisle seat.

“The thing you’ve got to remember is to follow your heart, or your interest or whatever you call it. You can’t let the charts or even the critic in your head tell you where to go. The important thing is to just follow the music.

“Every artist has got to protect himself because somebody is always trying to make that decision for you, including politicians. But you’ve got to protect that freedom.”