Bakithi Kumalo returns to ‘Graceland’ at Zoellner
It seems that Bakithi Kumalo will always be best known for playing bass on Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland,” despite the fact that he has recorded and performed with many other well-known artists, including Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Randy Brecker, Cyndi Lauper, Chaka Khan, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, and Mickey Hart. And he is known for being one of the best electric bass players in the world.
Bakithi Kumalo and the Graceland Tribute Band perform, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24, Baker Hall, Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem.
The Graceland Tribute Band is a 10-piece band with horns, drummer and percussionist and two guitarists.
Kumalo says a group that large is needed to get the sound right.
He recalls how the band began:
“A few years ago, I played the Philadelphia Folk Festival with Bakithi Kumalo and the South African All-Stars. Other musicians joined in to play Paul Simon songs. People liked it, so the band started to form after this show.
“I have been part of ‘Graceland’ music for 33 years. This will celebrate it,” says Kumalo. “It will bring this music to younger crowds.”
The concert is an opportunity to experience the music of “Graceland” live. Paul Simon concluded his “Homeward Bound Farewell Tour,” Sept. 22, 2018, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, N.Y., Simon’s hometown.
The Zoellner concert will not be a song by song recital of the “Graceland” and will include other songs in the same spirit.
“We need a balance. If we just play just a few ‘Graceland’ songs, people will say, ‘We paid to hear Paul Simon.’ But if we play too many, they will say, ‘We have heard all this stuff before,’ ” observes Kumalo.
After the Zoellner show, the band will be known as Bakithi Kumalo and the Graceland Experience.
Kumalo did not know Simon when he first entered the studio to record with him, but he and the other musicians gradually formed the iconic sound of the album.
Kumalo’s fretless bass playing stands out on the album, especially during “You Can Call Me Al.” Kumalo’s solo was electronically enhanced, but he learned to play the solo live.
Kumalo is working on a new album in his home studio, to be called ”What You See Is What You Hear.” He is “laying the foundation” on his own, playing all the instruments himself to get the sound he wants.
“I have a picture of what each song is like. I have had it happen too often that a producer does not understand where I am going. Later, I will add individual musicians as needed.”
Kumalo was born in South Africa in Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg. He originally learned the more difficult fretless variety of bass because it was the only instrument he could afford. Kumalo was a well-known session musician by the time Simon heard of him, and asked him to record on the “Graceland” album.
Kumalo toured with Simon until the end of Simon’s farewell tour. He says much of what he learned about the music came from being on the road with Simon. “Playing with Paul Simon was like going to different colleges,” he says.
“Graceland” was controversial at the time of its release. Simon was accused of breaking a boycott of South Africa over apartheid. However, he was supported by black anti-apartheid artists, including Hugh Masekela, who toured with Simon in a show that included music from “Graceland.”
For Kumalo, the “Graceland’ album was a way for him to escape apartheid and live in the United States. Simon gave him a plane ticket to finish recording the “Graceland” album in New York City. Kumalo had never been on a plane before.
Kumalo has lived in Bethlehem for close to 10 years, after 15 years on Long Island, New York.
“This place is amazing. I am loving it. It is so beautiful. so open. It is not as hectic as the city. I just look at the mountains and say, ‘Wow!’
“There are great musicians from this region. I will be here a long time.”
Tickets: Zoellner Arts Center box office, 420 E. Packer Avenue, Bethlehem; firstname.lastname@example.org; 610-7LU-ARTS, ext. 0