David Byrne and Luaka Bop A World Apart

David Byrne and Luaka Bop A World Apart
It was a provocative and counter-intuitive gambit coming from the source. "I hate world music," read the opening sentence of David Byrne's article in the New York Times on Oct. 3, 1999. This from a man who has done as much as anyone to open North American ears to Latin American, African and Asian artists, whether through his pioneering work at the helm of Talking Heads and as a solo artist, or through being the impresario behind his Luaka Bop label.

I first heard the tropicalia stars Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben when I picked up Byrne's Beleza Tropical, the first of his Brazil Classics series of compilations. Later, I encountered Indian film score god Vijaya Anand, Peruvian diva Susana Baca and Brazilian guitar alchemist Tom Ze through Luaka Bop releases. Serious names in their homelands and so-called "world music" circles, all of them. And here was Byrne declaring his hatred of world music. It was akin to Phil Spector writing, "I hate girl groups," 35 years ago.

But Byrne's dispute is not with the music itself, which he quite demonstrably adored. It was the terminology and underlying attitudes behind it that got his dander up. Americans might have the chutzpah to sing "We Are The World" and call a baseball series between two teams from New York the World Series, but the "world" in "world music" means just about anything other than American, Canadian, British and some European and Australian music (although the Aussies will count as world music if there's a didgeridoo somewhere in the mix).

Byrne still argues that the world music designation only keeps music not rooted American and British traditions marginalised and ghettoised. Pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, classical, blues and dance all get their own sections in the CD shops, but in the world music section, you'll see samba CDs cheek by jowl with Algerian rai. You might as well file Mozart next to Method Man. It doesn't make sense, and that sort of slotting only confirms to the uninitiated and the under-curious that the music contained in those bins won't make sense to them, either.

"To me, it's always been second nature to hear something from a French band or a Mexican band, and if it's something I love, if it's a cool sound or a cool groove, I'll wonder if I can do something that has that sort of feel to it," says Byrne. "All those things that I listen to seem relevant to me. They move me emotionally, and I don't think of them as a form of exotica."

That outlook explains how Byrne has become a towering figure in world music years after he was a seminal figure in alternative rock — he's never tried to be either, and he's maintained his currency and credibility by refusing to be bound by either.

These days, Byrne looks very much the elder statesman. Where he once looked alien in his own skin, an awkward body shrink-wrapped around a deadpan expression, he's grown into middle age in a way that's strikingly at odds with the familiar spectacle of rock stars growing older gracelessly.

In Toronto for Canadian Music Week, Byrne cuts a trim, almost elegant figure, wearing a khaki ensemble that looks like Tilley Endurables crossed with Mark's Work Wearhouse, about a dozen sizes smaller than the famed big white suit from Stop Making Sense. His salt-and-pepper hair coiffed a little upwards, he could pass for your eccentric aunt's cool boyfriend.

But now he's casting his mind back to 1980. While the Feelies were making Crazy Rhythms across the river in New Jersey, Talking Heads were filling in their landmark Remain in Light album with nervous, chattering renderings of the African rhythms and guitar sounds that fascinated them. One year later, Byrne waded deeper into that rhythmic matrix with his Bill Laswell-produced collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush with Ghosts.

"Odd things happened," Byrne says after a thoughtful pause. "When Talking Heads put out Remain in Light, we made all these claims in our press release that it was influenced by all this African music we were listening to, but it wasn't really an African-sounding record, except for maybe one or two tracks. It was as if by listening to African music, we were able to deconstruct and reconstruct our own music, our own stuff that we were listening to, whether it was funk or R&B or rock or whatever, and we could see what it was that we liked about it, and we could see where they had African roots and connections and where these things fit together. And we could understand it in a more intuitive and emotional way, and sometimes in a more intellectual way, too. Which made it end up an odd hybrid, as if someone said, ‘We've heard of funk music, but we've never heard funk music, but we're gonna make a funk record.'"

Within a decade, Byrne was no longer just dabbling with sounds from Latin America and Africa. With his 1989 solo album, Rei Momo, Byrne was writing his own slightly skewed versions of salsas, cumbias, mambos, merengues and all manner of other Latin dance styles. "That record was more of a weird kind of tribute to the kind of music I was listening to. Obviously, it's not a ‘real' salsa or cumbia record or any of the other styles on it," Byrne shrugs.

But in the 12 years or so between Rei Momo and his new album, Look Into The Eyeball, Byrne's relationship with his influences and inspirations has evolved along with his ten-year-old label. He once went out of his way to telegraph those influences, but the various grooves informing Look Into The Eyeball are more embedded and integrated.
"As I have more and more experience with these kinds of music, they become internalised and become a part of my grammar. So I can say, ‘Oh, maybe I'll put this little thing in here — it may not be orthodox, but I think it'll work really well. So they become much more invisible, which is more in keeping with what some of the bands on the label are doing — you know, they might do a house song with a cha-cha break or something.

"There were a couple on the new record that I thought were almost too obvious," he admits. "‘The Neighbourhood' was one — when I first started playing with a few chord changes, I thought it sounded like one of those Philadelphia soul songs, like the O'Jays and the Spinners, and I thought, well, let's see if I can write something like that. But other things are mixed in so well you can't hear them."
That seems to be Byrne's measure of success — a wide, even bewildering scope of influences, none of which can be distilled easily from the music. Byrne is more than the sum of his influences, but he's uncommonly forthcoming about them. A card-carrying member of the CD-burning nation, he travels with self-made mixed CDs of inspirational listening, from Caetano Veloso and Isaac Hayes to Tricky and Lambchop.

Such an omnivorous appetite for music to inform his own writing doesn't guarantee a brilliant David Byrne album. Look Into The Eyeball is an admirable, enjoyable album, but it doesn't make for compulsive listening, even if Byrne is in fine voice. But Byrne's ethos and instincts do make for a brilliant record label. Even if he's promoting his seventh solo album, he should be more proud of Luaka Bop. The label commemorated its tenth anniversary last year with the release of a two-CD anthology, Zero Accidents on the Job. The title is a little misleading. The label's history is one of happy accidents — hunches that have paid off with bands that have don't know from categories, genres or musical boundaries.

Some of the artists Byrne had the savvy to pick up, such as Cape Verde's "Barefoot Diva" Cesaria Evora, Brazilian rock tricksters Os Mutantes and Cuban showstoppers Los Van Van and Irakere, were already stars among the cognoscenti, but Luaka Bop did help spread the word. But the label also brought us such off-the-cuff, polyglot curiosities as Indo-Anglo popsters Cornershop, the Southern gothic folky pop of Jim White and the playful Venezuelan spin on funk-rock of Los Amigos Invisibles.

"These artists are a constant source of inspiration, most of them. Sometimes there are some clunkers, but most of the time, the acts we sign are acts that I really love what they do, and if I don't love what they do, they're doing something that really surprises me. They're part of my list of inspirational listening."

In Byrne, they have an indulgent label boss who allows them to be as generically promiscuous as they see fit. Byrne sees his role as fostering creativity unconstrained by the usual pressures to find a formula that pays, however modestly, and then follow it by rote.

"To be immodest, I think some of the artists on the label would look at me and say, ‘Well, look at him. He's tried not to repeat himself, and he's still hanging in there, so if he can do it, he must think we can do it, too.'

"On the other hand," Byrne says, breaking into a big, doting laugh, "Cornershop immediately followed up ‘Brimful of Asha,' which was a hit, with a side project called Clinton that wasn't all that different from the Cornershop record, but it was more playful, and it was a quick one. It was a good record, but they were really disappointed that it didn't do as well as the Cornershop record. And my feeling was, you're welcome to do this, but you changed the name. You want the freedom to do a quickie just for fun on the side and commit commercial sabotage — you've got the freedom to do that, but there's something to be said for branding and the attachment people have to a certain name."

Then there are the opportunities for networking Byrne's label and explorations have afforded him to become an influential figure not just to likeminded North Americans, but also among the musically inquisitive around the world. It's not so much about blurring or dismantling boundaries and orthodoxies as ignoring them altogether.
"When I did the Rei Momo record and did a tour with this big Latin band, I sometimes got trashed in the press because it either wasn't an ‘authentic' Latin band or it wasn't what I was doing before. Neither fish nor fowl. However, I think that album had a fairly big effect in Latin America. I toured that band down there, too. There were bands in places like Buenos Aires that had been listening to stuff like Talking Heads and the Clash and all sorts of new wave stuff and had also grown up listening to their parents' music, stuff like cumbias and cha-chas, and here comes this North American guy whose music they knew who was playing their music, or at least their parents' music. It put such a weird spin on things, that I think they thought, ‘Wow, we can do what we want. We don't have to follow the British or North American model. It's okay to do this stuff.'"

Something similar happened when Byrne did a show with Caetano Veloso in Spain last year — the audience found the pairing passing strange, but it wasn't like one or the other was an interloper. The crowd was filled with Veloso fans and Byrne fans, who became Veloso and Byrne fans. Unlikely intersections between audiences are happening elsewhere, with Byrne being an indirect instigator. When Susana Baca played a Toronto show last summer, the club held roughly equal numbers of the usual campus radio suspects, jazz heads, ethno-fetishists and what looked like old-guard Peronistas wearing gold lame jackets and doing flamenco claps and snapping their heavily jewel-bedecked fingers.
Even more than the specific names he's brought to light through his own music and his label, it's that softening and melting of boundaries and scenes that seems to get Byrne a little misty-eyed when he assesses the impact of Luaka Bop.

"Years ago, when I would mention what I was listening to, people would just think I was into some obscure, esoteric stuff — you know, they'd just say, ‘Well, David's off on his tropical tangent, that's not gonna be of much interest to us.' But I've found that gradually, some of those artists, like Susana Baca or Caetano Veloso, people start to get to know them, and they know longer think of them as some kind of exotic bird or exotic spice. They might think of them as one of their favourite records or one of their favourite shows. They'd rate it right next to a local artist. That sort of distance is still there, but it's changed in a profound way. I think that's quite an accomplishment."