The Paul Simon orchestra could pass for the house band at the United Nations. Spread out over the stage of the Tacoma (Wash.) Dome, the 17 musicians — hailing from three continents and hometowns as vastly different as Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, and New York — look like a multicultural fashion show. In the back on the left, percussionist Cyro Baptista is the very image of a Brazilian beatnik, with his goatee and floppy cap, as he shakes a large wicker disc outfitted with several jingle bells. Up front on the right, Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, resplendent in an oversize shirt and trousers featuring a kaleidoscopic African design, squeezes out ringing torrents of notes on an electric guitar. To the left of the middle, American Michael Brecker, casually urbane in a pink knit shirt and black slacks, blows into a squared-off lavender tube — an electronic wind instrument — to produce synthesized music as light and sweet as a summer breeze. Surrounding them, in an array that covers a three-tiered set of bleachers, are four more percussionists, two more guitarists, two more horn players, and a bassist. The body count would be even higher, but the three backup singers are offstage for this number. Down front, right in the center of attention, the Secretary General of this assembly is having the time of his life. Simon, who calls his current group ”the best of all the bands I’ve played with,” is singing, ”Proof is the bottom line for everyone.” The crowd in the Tacoma Dome obviously hears enough proof to agree with his assessment. When the song is finished, 15,000 fans rise to cheer.
And so the Born at the Right Time tour came to life on Jan. 4. To promote his new album, The Rhythm of the Saints, which has been planted in the top 10 ever since it came out in October, Simon will be on the road for the next nine months in North America and Europe. To stage the complex blend of Brazilian percussion, African guitar, and American pop on the album, Simon has been rehearsing, off and on, for the past five months. Back in August, after the first live performance of the band at a benefit concert on Long Island, Simon observed, ”It’s not easy integrating the Brazilians and Africans and the (top session musicians) I played with in the ’70s.”
It’s hard enough for the group just to have a casual chat. The Paul Simon band may play the international language of music, but it speaks in several tongues. To communicate with three of the Brazilian percussionists, who don’t speak English, Simon must use the fourth to translate to and from Portuguese. Others in the group speak French or English, or both. At a rehearsal on Long Island shortly after Thanksgiving, Simon uses a combination of translators, body language, and musical example to tell his band what he wants. Three backup singers, French-speaking African women who’ve just flown in from Paris, struggle to learn the lyrics phonetically, so the band ends up with an extended lunch break while the singers slowly memorize ”Born at the Right Time” syllable by syllable. Eventually, before the tour starts, Simon has to replace the trio with Americans when the language barrier cannot be overcome.