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The Rhythm of St. Paul


Paul Simon.

Warner Brothers Records.


AN OLD ROOMMATE OF MINE IN Berkeley, who graduated with honors in economics and sold psychedelic mushrooms in his spare time, once asked me what pop music I listened to. "Oh, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, stuff like that," I mumbled. I feared my roommate. Once he came into the room at 2 am, woke me up, and blew pot smoke in my face. "I've seen your kind before," he said this time. "No others, are there? There is no `stuff like that,' huh?"

He'd smoked me out. Fresh out of high-school band, where music was Serious Business, I'd chosen two groups whose undeniable appeal would leave my vast ignorance of pop music unchallenged. Five years later, my tastes have changed, but Paul Simon has grown along with them.

In The Rhythm of the Saints, Simon bases his songs on rhythms and sounds found in the drum music of Brazil. Most pop music relegates drummers to the role of expensive metronome; but in parts of Africa, for example, skilled drum playing is a language. Drum players are African bards, telling the "oral" history of their villages with their hands. People dance with the drums, which tell the story of their ancestors, their homes and their lives.

At first, I found this jarring. The long drum chorus which begins "The Obvious Child" still reminds me of marching band. But drums stir my blood, and the polyphonic drum sound is so rich and complex that it hypnotizes you. You can try to dissect and understand it, but it demands that you dance.

The Rhythm of the Saints gives the drums the spotlight. The drums set the mood; then Simon writes a song around them. This is most obvious in "The Cool, Cool River," where sudden transitions between pounding textured rhythms and a lone acoustic guitar mirror a move from oppressive work-a-day city life to just drifting down the river, carefree. You don't need to know English to feel the mood change.

For "Spirit Voices," however, a bit of Portuguese might help. The spirits whom the brujo summons are native Brazilians. All of this may sound familiar to Simon fans. On his last album, the Grammy-award winning Graceland, the song "Homeless" is sung in English and Zulu. Its opening track, "The Boy in the Bubble," also begins with instruments unusual in rock: first an accordion, then BAM! enters a hand drum -- BAM! -- and finally a fretless bass mimicking a tuba starts, playing the role of lead guitar. Only then does Simon begin to sing. Saints' opening track, "The Obvious Child," begins with the loud snare drum chorus, then synthesizer playing octaves; Simon joins in after the instruments have their fun. The familiar meshes with the alien.

Simon's attempts to reinvent himself and his music with each new album have earned him a fanatical following. The Rhythm of the Saints sold over 173,000 copies last week in the United States alone. In an age when presidents read opinion polls to find out what to do next, Simon shows courage -- he follows his muse, whatever the commercial risks. Pop artists, take heed: It makes him a rich man. And because he explores Brazil or South Africa, wherever music is magical, we learn and feel wonder right along with him.

So if you're looking for a pre-finals shot of adrenaline, I have a suggestion. Go to a record store. The competition between Tower Records and everybody else has lowered prices on compact discs everywhere. Buy this CD. Later, in your room, alone, turn on "The Obvious Child." Loud. Turn up the bass. Let the drums overpower you. Throw your arms around. Dance. The drums divide and subdivide the music. You will hear a danceable rhythm at any speed you listen. Hear the textures, absorb them all. They will envelop you.