Graceland Revisited

An evening with legendary bassist Bakithi Kumalo & friends for a tribute of hits from Paul Simon’s shamelessly funky album. 

EAST FALLS, Philadelphia: World-renowned bassist Bakithi Kumalo brings his Graceland Experience band to The Fallser Club this January 20th for a musical feast of pop, rock, zydeco, mbaqanga, and more through songs that explore the roots and rhythms of South Africa. 🌍🎶🪘💓 BUY TIX

Paul Simon’s groundbreaking masterpiece mixed the American singer/songwriter genre with traditional South African choral singing and instrumentation, exciting audiences on both continents, and around the world. “Graceland” was Album of the Year in 1986, dominating the airwaves and sparking controversy during a time when the UN called for a united boycott against South African’s apartheid regime.

While Simon — along with every other artist with a conscience at the time — refused to play “Sun City” for white South African audiences, he did not subscribe to a blanket ban on the entire country. Indeed, the year he started working on Graceland, he had become fixated on mbaqanga, aka “township jive“, an upbeat music genre from the streets of Johannesburg that blended jazz, Big Band, and African folk harmonies. It seemed only natural for him to follow his instincts to work with the people he admired, the ones who had inspired him most, who could benefit from his platform. 

Graceland would go on to win two Grammys and quintuple-platinum sales. More importantly, it would showcase the incredible talents of indigenous South African singers and musicians on a global stage, making music history and changing the lives of these artists forever. When Simon came calling, Bakithi Kumalo (pronounced Bah-Gee-Tee Koo-Ma-Low) was working in a garage just to make ends meet. Today, he has five Grammys of his own and is recognized as one of the World’s Top 50 Bass Players of All Time. Bakithi’s unique sound is often credited as being the heart of Graceland. 

Born in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa, Bakithi grew up in a musical family, immersed in a rich culture of traditional African rhythms and acappella vocal groups. He taught himself to follow the groove of bass lines and developed his own licks based on the left-hand work of accordion players in the bands he heard growing up. He landed his first job at the tender age of seven years old, filling in for his uncle’s bass player. At twelve, he started getting invited to studio gigs, and soon he was working regularly as one of the area’s best session musicians.

This was during the 1970s and early 1980s, when record companies exploited local talent, and Bakithi needed special authorization to work in certain parts of town. Paul Simon opened up a whole new world. They met through producer Hendrick Lebone, who had an inkling Bakithi’s distinctive sound would be perfect for Simon’s new album. Simon agreed. They worked together in preliminary recording sessions in South Africa, then Bakithi traveled with Simon to New York City to complete the tracks. Soon after the first Graceland tour, he married Robbi Hall Kumalo, a singer/artist/educator from Long Island; they have two kids (and Bakithi has a son in South Africa). 

Bakithi has had an amazing career, spanning decades and performing alongside big-name artists including Hugh Masekela, the Grateful Dead, Sting, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Gloria Estefan, Derek Trucks, Miriam Makeba, and many others. He’s not just a master bass player, either, he’s a solid singer, percussionist, pianist, and songwriter, too.  In addition to touring regularly with Paul Simon over the years, Bakithi has collaborated with artists including Joan Baez, Cyndi Lauper, Herbie Hancock, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Randy Brecker, Grover Washington Jr., and Mickey Hart.

He’ll go down in history for his unforgettable, top-speed bass solo in Graceland’s biggest hit, “Call Me Al” — a riff that’s famously physically impossible to reproduce 🤯. His signature grooves in “Boy In The Bubble” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” remain a source of joy and inspiration for generations of fans, especially other bassists. The love goes both ways — Bakithi is a team player on the stage and in the studio. His latest album, “What You Hear Is What You See,” is a collaboration with 31 jazz and world music musicians, produced by Maxfield Gast and Militia Hill, and saturated with talent. 

🫂 As if you need another reason to come out to his show, Bakithi is also a community guy, with Music Mentorship programs in South Africa, Long Island, and even right here in Pennsylvania. Your admission helps support live music everywhere! The Fallser Club is an innovative, affordable neighborhood venue in the heart of East Falls in Northwest Philadelphia. Great public transportation options (bus & regional rail), plus the Club is a block away from the Schuylkill River Trail. 🚵🚵‍♂️🚵‍♀️

Saturday, January 20
8PM (doors open at 7PM)
Yes! There is a dance floor! 💃🕺🪩

The Fallser Club

3721 Midvale Ave (East Falls)
$30 advance tix via
$35 at the door

BONUS: Q&A with the Artist  Come early for a very special pre-show, where Bakithi speaks about his experience being a part of Paul Simon’s iconic album: what it was like recording Graceland during apartheid, with his personal take on media backlash and cultural appropriation. He’ll also be taking audience questions, and sharing what he knows from his long and storied career. 

📻📰 LEARN MORE: Radio Times with Bakithi Kumalo 🎶🎸

Excerpts from Bakithi’s Dec. 2014 Radio Times interview with WHYY’s Marty Moss-Coane (tune in to her new podcast Fridays at noon on WHYY.FM)

So back in the 1980’s you were a struggling musician living in Soweto, South Africa, when Paul Simon reached out about playing bass on an album he was working on called Graceland. Take me back to when you met him.

Man, Paul he really saved my life, because he came at just the right time. Things were so bad for me then that I just needed to get out. And I was very fortunate that he was looking for musicians.

I was working as a mechanic’s assistant, you know, just running around. He’d say give me wrench one, or wrench two, or whatever the wrench was and I’m just like running all day long. And one day my boss says to me, we just got a call from people who know Paul Simon, they told us he’s in town and they’re looking for you to come to the studio.

Do you know who Paul Simon is? And I’m like, no, I don’t know the guy. And the guys in the shop just keep singing these Simon and Garfunkel songs and I keep saying, I don’t know that one. Until they get to Mother and Child Reunion and that song had always stuck in my head. And I said, oh, Paul Simon from Jamaica. They said, No, he’s not from Jamaica. He’s just playing reggae. So and I went to the studio to meet Paul.

Paul took a lot of heat when Graceland was released. I remember when the tour came to Philadelphia that people protested the fact that he had gone to South Africa.

We didn’t understand as musicians why that was happening. Because we musicians were struggling and the only thing the ANC (African National Congress, which opposed apartheid) did for us was invite us to play free gigs to help get their message out. People said Paul was just taking advantageof us.

But he helped us and bought us things, food and equipment. And he did more than just give us the music. He pushed for Nelson Mandela’s release. He got people together for a concert in Zimbabwe in 1987. All South Africans and people from all over the world came to see the show. And I saw, for the first time, black and white together in the crowd — it was amazing.

I was trying to figure out the adjectives to describe your playing, but there is something about the human voice in how you play the bass.

I think so. Growing up in South Africa, I heard many voices, in church, or tribal people passing by, even the garbage man singing while he’s carrying his garbage cans. So I listened to these acapella voices, never any other bass player until later on, but I listened to those voices when they passed by and played along with them.

Follow @BakithiKumalobass on all the socials: IG, X, Youtube, Spotify, Apple, and his website

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