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He's got the music world in his hands

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Although wracked with controversy and punctuated by grenade blasts, Paul Simon's recent tour of South Africa marked the end of a great circle the singer-songwriter had begun seven years earlier.

"It was a very unusual and satisfying occurrence to be able to close a chapter as symmetrically as I've been able to do with this tour," Simon said from Cape Town a few days before playing his final South African concert in late January.

"To begin in South Africa (recording Graceland), to go on the tour with Graceland when it wasn't even possible to even come here _ the closest we could come was Zimbabwe _ when Hugh (Masekela) and Miriam (Makeba, two of the performers on the Graceland tour) were still political exiles, when (Nelson) Mandela was still in jail; and now, to be able to come here in this short a period of time _ it's pretty amazing."

Simon was the first major pop star to perform in South Africa after the United Nations dropped its cultural sanctions.

He brought his Born At the Right Time tour there at the invitation of Mandela and the African National Congress _ ironically, the same faction that originally condemned Simon's recording of Grace-land with South African musicians.

Opposition to his tour of South Africa came from the Azanian People's Organization, which protested the lifting of the U.N.'s cultural boycott.

The group that claimed responsibility for a grenade attack on the Johannesburg offices of the tour promoters just hours after Simon arrived in the country to begin the tour.

Simon would like to see both political factions stop using music and art for political ends. "I just think they all should stay away from culture," he said.

The first few concert dates after the grenade attack were stressful, to say the least, Simon admitted. People who had bought tickets in advance stayed home in fear of terrorism. But Simon and his troupe of American, African and Brazilian musicians persevered and, once the tour began, the attacks stopped and the remaining shows went on.

In the midst of it all, Simon received some good news from home. He's a Grammy nominee for album of the year for The Rhythm of the Saints. Should he win Tuesday, he'll be the only person to win album of the year in four consecutive decades.

"That was a nice little piece of information to come in the middle of all those bomb threats," he said.

By now, Simon's Graceland album is an accepted classic, the first commercially successful album to blend American pop with the guitars and lush choral traditions of South Africa.