David Byrne’s Raucous Luaka Bop Label Turns 21


Is “Ponta De Lança Africano (Umbabarauma)” really about where slaves arrived in Brazil? Or did I just expand a mental legend over the years, trying to explain and contain the unsettling, unsettled poise and expanse of Jorge Ben’s rolling, grinding samba soul classic? Literally, it’s about soccer, but the key line “um ponta de lan a Africano” doesn’t match the title (“Point of the African Lance,” ouch!), but its translation—”an African point man” (also “um ponta de lan a decidio” or “a point man whose mind is made up“)—is pretty pointed, too. But it sounds like big Ben’s got all of the above and something else on his mind, that he’s listening to, listening for. Sounds like he’s still listening, and that’s catching.

Ben’s example further schooled Beleza Tropical, the reputation-making debut release on Luaka Bop, the New York City label founded by David Byrne in 1988. The compilation arrived like a ship from post–bossa nova Brazil, mostly (Ben’s restless boldness aside) filled with discreetly fabulous/accomplished descendants of the tale-telling, refugee gamesters in Boccaccio’s Decameron. The crew of Belize can largely be ID’d as members of the ’60s Tropicália movement, who’d been exiled or isolated because of cultural activities that Brazil’s ruling junta found excessively international, frivolous, and otherwise weird. They grew up, in no small measure, by sharpening their wits while whetting their appetites. Intelligent pleasure heads can learn, don’t have to burn just yet. That was Boccaccio’s word to his plague- and power- (including pietism) ravaged age, and maybe Byrne’s word to the somewhat similar ’80s. Yet Byrne, Boccaccio, and Chaucer were also savvy children of their own ages’ enterprising spirit.

So, with that non-absolutist, live-and-let-earn sentiment in mind, it’s perfectly/imperfectly OK that Ben’s massively credible “Ponta” point man kicks off the 15-track celebratory retrospective 21st Century, 21st Year by landing re–fine-tuned ears on the mega-hyped, funk-lite balcony that Shuggie Otis built. Luaka Bop meant to demonstrate that resurrection was for Americans, too, so Otis’s 1974 Inspiration Information was rescued from collectors-only obscurity, and the bargain bin, and record-show prices. Anyone could slip on the listening bar’s headphones and dig how Otis played all the instruments in his nice niche just so his shaky little voice could go “Aht Uh Mi Hed,” as 21st Century‘s second track’s new third life still tells the tale. He’s leaning far out into purple keyboard clouds of what should be ease, but with a bee in his bonnet. He’s listening to it, wanting something more.

Although the next track, David Byrne’s “Fuzzy Freaky,” might be even more than Otis bargained for. As placed here by compiler Justin Carter, it must be especially harrowing for those who thought Byrne would make Luaka Bop just successful enough to fatally misrepresent the artists he reissued, reducing them to warm ‘n’ fuzzy li’l furriners and/or Tee-Headsy novelty nibbles around the edges of edginess. In this proud parody of Heads-era Byrne’s fly-eyed, jittery white-guy persona, the guy learns to dance, in a truly foreign/alien way, and celebrates with a lithe, blithe self-nibble (“It’s my body, and I’ll eat it, too”). Oh, shut up.

But you don’t really have to think about this stuff much to enjoy most of 21st Century. Marcio Local dances its theme-ness around a dreamy scenic route via “Samba Sem Nenhum Problema” (“Samba With No Problem”). Ironically, considering its truthful tag, the track is also on his excellent but tiresomely titled new Luaka Bop set, Marcio Local Says Don Day Don Dree Don Don. But that labored label kinda signifies, too, insofar as the Local lad is listening hard to his reverie of how Ben-style samba soul should be, this very afternoon. Listening till he takes his cue through the sunburst of his orchestra and yelps another acrobatic riff from way back behind the parade across his mirror shades. He’s timing it so he won’t get run over (upstaged) by the very ongoing tradition getting a recharge in his song. And indeed, Local’s afterbuzz holds its own even as Venezuelan boogie knights Los Amigos Invisibles, Cuban jazz salts Irakere, and vintage African funk’s Moussa Doumbia successively possess the rare-groovological students’ graduation procession of self-expression. (Also new on LB: Check sex collectors Los Amigos’ Commercial, which gets it on after the first quarter’s fumbling foreplay.)

21st Century also flashes several mesmerizing songs about tuning (and perhaps turning) in to your car. American Steely-Police heads Geggy Tah are eternally ecstatic about changing lanes while merging with the radio. (It worked! “Whoever You Are” was Luaka Bop’s biggest, least-obviously-recognizable-as LB-product mid-’90s micro-hit!) But all such slipstream profiles disappear in their rainlight as your attention is suddenly face-to-face with the sunny, freestyle smile of Os Mutantes’ Rita Lee, singing “Baby” in 1971 and at the close of this set. When she exclaims, “We live in the biggest city/Of South America!” every tunneling music geek in the world sees the light, just as she leads the way out of the shiny, shivery frame that Luaka Bop can’t help trying to save/re-reissue her in. “Look here . . . look what I wrote on my shirt.” Yeah, babe. Byrne on!