After his January trip to Brazil, David Byrne posted a long playlist of scratchy sambas, savory bossa novas, and other impossible-to-find Brazilian music nuggets on his blog. It was brilliant, and assembled so effortlessly. I was jealous. Having just returned from Brazil myself, I was elated with my own Rio record finds. Until I saw his.
Mr. Byrne has been assembling those compilations for over two decades — officially, at least. His label, Luaka Bop, evolved out of cassette tape mixes for friends. The first to be released, Beleza Tropical, sold 300,000 copies. Since then, he has resurrected a forgotten soul artist (Shuggie Otis), introduced a Brazilian legend to the U.S. (Tom Ze), and mined the superfluity of funky sounds from 1970s West Africa (like Moussa Doumbia).
21st Century marks Luaka Bop’s 21st year in the business. The business, that is, of fulfilling Mr. Byrne’s boundless fancy, and ignoring all the rules of running a record label. Luaka has outlasted major labels Warner Bros., Virgin, and V2, with whom it had partnerships. Apparently, they were not amused by Mr. Byrne’s slapdash style.
Says Luaka co-director, Yale Evelev, “To be honest, I never knew what the hell David wanted. At first, it was a little daunting, but after a while I realized he loved to be pulled into different worlds.”
You can say that again. 21st Century, 21st Year, begins and ends in Brazil (Jorge Ben and Os Mutantes, respectively), but goes everywhere in between. The anniversary compilation contains songs released on Luaka’s far-flung compilations and re-issues over the years. So don’t expect continuity.
The first track, “Ponta De Lanca Africano,” originally from the inimitable Jorge Ben on his 1976 Africa Brasil, was also the first song on the Beleza Tropical compilation. The samba rock classic pays homage to an African soccer player (“goal man, goal!”), but it’s the bluesy guitar riff, female vocals, and hand-clap breakdown that immortalized the track.
21st Century stays in the same decade with, “Aht Uh Mi Hed,” Suggie Otis’ liquid soul number. Few of my generation had heard Inspiration Information (1974) until its glorious re-issue on Luaka in 2001. But it’s a testament to his timelessness that many of us initially thought the athletic bass lines and velvety organ dances had been created in this decade.
Watching David Byrne pop up everywhere while fulfilling his role as the world’s indefatigable cultural dynamo makes you wonder what the hell we would do without him. It could also make one jealous. Or, inspired to travel more, and to listen closely.