''M y new album really came about by accident,'' Paul Simon said. ''In the summer of 1984, a friend of mine gave me a tape of 'township jive,' the street music of Soweto, South Africa. It was a happy instrumental music that reminded me of 1950's rhythm and blues, which I have always loved. By the end of the summer I was scat-singing melodies over the tracks. I thought that the group, whoever it was, would be interesting to record with. And so I went on a search to find out who they were and where they came from.''
Mr. Simon's search eventually took him to Johannesburg, where he immersed himself in the black South African musical community and discovered a world of vitality that is still largely unknown in this country. The album, ''Graceland'' (Warner Bros. 1-25447; LP, cassette, compact disk), is a testament to that search, in which two cultures met and blended. With his characteristic refinement, Mr. Simon has fashioned that event into the rock album equivalent of a work of literature.
''I think of writing an album as like writing a play,'' Mr. Simon reflected. ''As in a play, the mood should keep changing. A serious song may lead into an abstract song, which may be followed by a humorous song. On 'Graceland,' I tried to be more accessible than in the past without giving up the language.''
''Graceland'' opens with a montage of jarring lyrical images that describe a terrorist bombing, drought and famine, bizarre new medical technology and lasers in the jungle. Set against a slogging rhythm of accordion, bass and drums, Mr. Simon's stark telegraphic poetry rings with a mixture of alarm and harsh exhilaration. ''These are the days of miracle and wonder/This is the long distance call,'' goes the chorus of the first song, ''The Boy in the Bubble,'' which conjures an indelible picture of the world as a global village, at once united and divided by the magic of technology.
Although the notion that popular music should have a global consciousness has been in the air since at least the late 1970's, ''Graceland'' pursues that ideal with a passion and an intellectual seriousness unprecedented among contemporary Western pop stars. Stevie Wonder, the Police and the USA for Africa coalition that created ''We Are the World'' all have recorded powerful invocations of global togetherness, but their songs have tended to be upbeat pop chants evoking a generalized humanitarian solidarity. Musically, they have compressed different combinations of gospel, reggae and post-Beatles pop-rock within conventional pop song structures.
''Graceland'' is something new, an album that thoroughly blends various styles of acoustic black South African folk music with strains of stylistically related American rock-and-roll into songs that have unusual shapes and structures and that sound unlike anything familiar to most American ears. That is because about half the album was recorded in Johannesburg with many of the finest black South African musicians playing music that only later was shaped into songs.
''The search began when my record company, Warner Bros., put me in touch with Hilton Rosenthal, a leading South African record producer, who identified the group on the tape as the Boyoyo Boys,'' Mr. Simon recalled. ''Hilton also sent me records of around a dozen other South African bands. I was so impressed that I in-quired whether it would be possible to record with some of them. I found that I could. And in February 1985, I flew with the recording engineer Roy Halee to Johannesburg.
''There were people who said I shouldn't go,'' Mr. Simon added. ''South Africa is a supercharged subject surrounded with a tremendous emotional velocity. I knew I would be criticized if I went, even though I wasn't going to record for the government of Pretoria or to perform for segregated audiences - in fact, I had turned down Sun City twice. I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired. Before going I called consulted with Quincy Jones and with Harry Belafonte, who has close ties with the South African musical community. They both encouraged me to make the trip. I later learned that the black musicians' union took a vote as to whether they wanted me to come. They decided that my coming would benefit them, because I could help to give South African music a place in the international musical community similar to that of reggae.''
All told, Mr. Simon spent two and a half weeks cutting tracks in Johannesburg, working with different South African groups and parts of groups. ''The Boy in the Bubble'' was recorded with Tao Ea Matsekha (drums, accordion and bass), from Lesotho. With the Shangaan group, General M. D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters (bass, drums, guitar and six female singers), he recorded the tracks for the song that later became ''I Know What I Know.'' And for another song, later titled ''Gumboots,'' he cut tracks with the Boyoyo Boys, the group that had first inspired him.
Mr. Simon soon formed a basic trio of musicians, all from Soweto. They included Chikapa ''Ray'' Phiri, the lead guitarist of a group called Stimela, Isaac Mthsli, Stimela's drummer, and Baghiti Khumalo, the bassist from Tao Ea Matsekha. The following May, Mr. Simon brought them to New York for further sessions. For the Johannesburg sessions, Mr. Simon paid the musicians $196.41 an hour, triple scale wages by American pay rates. And to those musicians who provided key instrumental licks and melodic fragments that were later incorporated into tunes, he also offered writers' royalties.
While in Johannesburg, Mr. Simon met Joseph Shabalala, the lead singer and composer of the renowned 13-member a cappella vocal group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with whom he later recorded in London and New York. Mr. Shabalala collaborated with Mr. Simon on two of the album's most haunting cuts, the a cappella folk hymn ''Homeless,'' and the playful rhythm-and-blues-flavored ''Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.''
''My typical style of songwriting in the past has been to sit with a guitar and write a song, finish it, go into the studio, book the musicians, lay out the song and the chords, and then try to make a track,'' Mr. Simon said. ''With these musicians, I was doing it the other way around. The tracks preceded the songs. We worked improvisationally. While a group was playing in the studio I would sing melodies and words - anything that fit the scale they were playing in.
''Some time after I had finished the tracks for eight songs and returned to the United States, I went on a trip to Louisiana with the composer and saxophonist Richard Landry, who has a house there,'' Mr. Simon continued. ''I realized that the accordion, which had been so prominent in African music, was also integral to Cajun music and decided it would be interesting to cut something with a Cajun zydeko band. At a dance hall in Lafayette, I saw the group Good Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters, and we went to a little studio behind a music store in Crowley, La., and recorded the song that became 'That Was Your Mother.' Then I contacted the Mexican-American band Los Lobos in Los Angeles, and we recorded what later became 'All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.' Los Lobos' music also features an accordion. And so the accordion became my connection back to America.'' An 11th song, ''Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes'' was recorded in New York several months ago using the same South African rhythm section with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Senegalese singer-percussionist Youssou Ndour.
Mr. Simon began the laborious process of shaping his tracks into songs 14 months ago. ''I would play the tracks over and over again, improvising melodies until I thought I could perceive patterns in the music that would enable me to write matching verses,'' he said. ''It was very difficult, because patterns that seemed as though they should fit together often didn't. I realized that in African music, the rhythms are always shifting slightly and that the shape of a melody was often dictated by the bass line rather than the guitar. Harmonically, African music consists essentially of three major chords - that's why it sounds so happy - so I could write almost any melody I wanted in a major scale. I improvised in two ways - by making up melodies in falsetto, and by singing any words that came to mind down in my lower and mid range. I tried not to censor the words and to keep an ear cocked to see if a phrase came out that was interesting enough to suggest that my subconscious had allowed something significant to bubble out. Though I had no intentions of writing about Elvis Presley, the word 'Graceland' came very early. While writing the lyrics, I always tried to stay true to the mood of the music, which was flowing, pleasant and easy.''
In New York, Mr. Simon also brought in American studio musicians to overdub added instrumentation on South African tracks. And on many of the cuts, he used a Synclavier to enhance the sound of the primitive acoustic instruments by creating an electronic ''shadow.'' He also enlisted Linda Ronstadt to sing a duet on the song, ''Under African Skies'' and the Everly Brothers to sing backup vocals on the album's title song.
Listening to ''Graceland,'' one gets the sense of an artist submitting to, and being swept up by, musical forces he does not totally understand. Adding a crucial extra dimension to the album is Mr. Simon's very urbane literary sensibility, which pulls against the simplicity of the music and lends the songs a kind of double vision. The music extends and enriches the language while the lyrics meditate on the music.
For Mr. Simon, a normally somber composer-lyricist, the merging of the two cultures has yielded music of astounding joy and playfulness and prompted zany, many-layered pop lyrics that embrace the world in all its terror and confusion. Even ''The Boy in the Bubble,'' with its flashing TV remote-control images of catastrophe and weirdness, sashays forward on an optimistic South African folk groove. The song affirms mystical connections between primitive magic and modern technology, art and medicine, astrology and television. It is the first leg of a spiritual journey that continues throughout the rest of the record.
Besides ''The Boy in the Bubble,'' the album's other masterpiece is its title song, in which Elvis Presley's shrine becomes a metaphor of salvation for ''poor boys and pilgrims with families,'' as well as a personal symbol of healing for the songwriter's romantic wounds. The song's stylistic balance of African folk-blues and American country music lends the concept of ''Graceland'' a resonance that extends to the black South African struggle against apartheid.
The shimmering bilingual spiritual ''Homeless,'' with its repeated dreamlike refrain, ''Homeless, homeless / the moonlight sleeping on the midnight lake,'' offers a haunting, more African-oriented echo of the quest for holy ground. So does the hymnlike ''Under African Skies,'' in which the figure of Joseph becomes the dual image of a dispossessed African black man and the New Testament Joseph gazing at the stars.
These deeply serious songs, in which musical, spiritual and political worlds transfuse one another, are balanced by lighter songs filled with a playful, nonsensical humor. ''You Can Call Me Al,'' ''Crazy Love, Vol. II,'' ''Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,'' ''I Know What I Know'' and ''Gumboots'' take clever swipes at neurotic urban self-centeredness in allusive lyrics that swirl together rock-and-roll slang, storybook characters with names like Charlie the Archangel and Mr. Beerbelly, contemporary psychobabble and poetic and religious exclamations. The language in these stream-of-consciousness fables is so energetic it practically does somersaults.
It remains to be seen whether an album so non-mainstream in sound can be a big hit. Mr. Simon has taken such risks before, sometimes winning and sometimes not. ''Hearts and Bones,'' his last solo album, released three years ago, was his only record to fall short of ''gold'' (500,000 copies).
''It could be that I've reached the point in my career where I can't be a viable commerical force in popular music,'' Mr. Simon reflected. ''But even if the album is not a hit, in the future I don't plan to modify anything.''
Perhaps because it was created backward, with its songs pieced together so intuitively, ''Graceland'' effervesces with an extraordinary sense of artistic freedom and adventure. None of the songs is overtly political, yet the whole record embodies the concept of liberation. The music lilts to the stars. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL GO SEPARATE WAYS Although it would make commercial sense for Paul Simon to record with his former singing partner, Art Garfunkel, the pair have gone their separate ways since their brief but successful reunion in 1981 and '82.
Mr. Garfunkel, who has divided his energies between acting and singing since the late 1960's, recently played an investigative reporter in the movie ''Good to Go,'' a melodrama set in the ''go-go'' music scene of contemporary Washington. The movie has yet to open in New York City.
Mr. Garfunkel has completed recording ''The Animal's Christmas,'' a pop cantata composed by Jimmy Webb that tells the Nativity story from the perspective of animals. The cantata was first performed in New York and London in December 1983. Besides himself, the album, which Mr. Garfunkel co-produced, features the Nashville-based Christian pop star Amy Grant and the London Symphony Orchestra. It will be released by Columbia Records in mid-September. Mr. Garfunkel has also been working on a book of poetry as well as planning his sixth solo album. His last solo record, ''Scissors Cut,'' was released in 1981.
Simon & Garfunkel originally recorded together as Tom & Jerry in the late 1950's. ''The Sounds of Silence,'' in 1965, began their string of hits as Simon & Garfunkel. They split in 1970 and reunited for a Central Park concert in 1981, which was followed by the tour and a live album of the concert. According to Mr. Simon, they have been been out of touch for the last two years.
Photo of Paul Simon with guitar (NYT/Jack Manning) (Pg. 18)