We used to tell people a lot of different things when they asked what Luaka Bop meant. Truth be told it is a Sri Lankan orange pekoe tea that David Byrne bought in the UK.
The eye of the Luaka Bop log is the eye of Vilaç Trimegistes, the Balkan alchemist who gave his eyes to his work, and who was the first to uncover the secrets of the Egyptian Knights. The shape and purportion of the Eye of Vilaç is in a mathematical relationship to the vessel, or “heart”. The heart being considered a vessel not only for the blood, but for the dead. The rays, “thorns” or nails that line and protect the vessel were incorporated during the middle ages, an addition that was deemed necessary in leiu of the then power of the Papacy. -David Byrne
Tibor Kalman of M&Co did all of the early design work for Luaka Bop and most of the later Talking Heads covers as well. (Amazingly enough though we might not have used Tibor on many of the later album covers we did unknowingly end up using a pile of folks who worked for him at M&Co; Stefan Sagmeister, Stephen Doyle, Alexander Isley, Scott Stowell, and Emily Oberman of #17). Tibor had a three dimensional logo made up for one of our first label compilations called “To Scratch That Itch.” Here is the item itself.
David Byrne and Yale Evelev on the Origins of Luaka Bop
Why in 1988 did you think the world-at-large needed to hear Brazilian music?’
David: I act like any music fan… just the same as when I was in junior high and high school (secondary school for the rest of the world). Whenever I found a record I thought was especially cool, I’d play it for my friends and hype it and watch their reaction. I feel the same enthusisam for a lot of Brazilian “pop” music, a lot of Rock en Español… hell, for all the stuff on the label. It just so happened that I’d assembled these compilations of my Brazilian faves for myself, from my own vinyl collection, and I realized that it sounded pretty good, and I didn’t get tired of it, and more importantly I guess, I realized that there wasn’t a compilation of this stuff out there. Sure, there were bossa nova collections in existence, but I felt that that was, however wonderful, only an inkling of the vast music riches that this country has produced. So, my impulse was like any fan’s, not a do-gooder attitude… this is not school, this is pop music after all… I wanted to turn friends on to stuff I liked.
How was the record received initially, and was this a factor in starting the label?
David: I went on the road and publicized this first compilation, and it was received with suspicion by some of the rock press, but by and large people loved it… as they should… it was a collection of the best of a whole generation’s work… how could I lose with such great songs to choose from?
It turned out to be our best seller… selling more than most bands’ first records, until recently. Oddly enough, I was so naive when the liscensing rights were made that I made a terrible arrangement, and I’ve never seen any money from this collection. But it got the whole ball rolling.
When did you realize that there was desire for more than just one record, and that an entire label might be needed?
David: Almost immediately after Beleza Tropical came out, I realized I’d be doing two or three more Brazil compilations, to touch on some of the other musical styles that are so exciting there. And eventually I also knew I’d release a compilation of Tom Zé‘s best stuff… so an umbrella was needed to make things run smoothly. I picked the name because I loved the sound of it –strange, but musical… yes, it’s a really confusing name, and difficult to pronounce, but we’re stuck with it now.
How and when did you find Mr. Yale Evelev? What was he brought in to do?
David: I’m not sure, but I seem to remember Yale was recommended by a former A&R guy at Warner that I was friends with, Tim Carr. Turns out I had a few of Yale’s records from his own lable Icon, which I liked, and I’d known him from when he worked at the Soho Music Gallery, a record store where I used to get stuff I couldn’t find anywhere else.
What was your initial concept behind Luaka Bop?
David: The initial concept was no concept. I knew there would be about four Brazilian records, and then we did a series of Cuban compilations — stuff that hadn’t been available anywhere for years, but was as recent as the ’70s and ’80s. And we did the first compilation of Silvio Rodriguez, the great Cuban poet and songwriter, which was the first recording of contemporary Cuban music to be released in the U.S.A. We had found a kind of loophole in the famous U.S. embargo on Cuban products, which allowed music to slip through.
I love the way Silvio’s influences range from Cuban music to rock ‘n’ roll, psychedelic rock, in particular… so for me this was important. Silvio’s record sold well in South America and in Spain, where he was already well-loved and admired… and it did OK in the U.S. too, although nothing like the Latin sales. To me this was typical — sometimes it takes a naive foreigner to appreciate what people who live in a country don’t realize they have. So it took a kid in New York to make the first greatest hits compilation of the famous Cuban artist. Like the Brits selling rock and now dance music, both U.S. innovations, back to the U.S. in mutated and wildly twisted versions.
Yale and I went to Cuba for a few weeks to coordinate the deal with Silvio, see the country, hear some music, and rummage through the EGREM (the Cuban government’s record label) vaults for stuff that was out of print. We had a great time… it’s such a musical country. We drove cross country, stood in line for fried chicken, heard great live music in every little town. When we stopped at a little town east of Havana called Santa Clara there was a carnival going on and I heard my song “Dirty Old Town” from my Latin album, Rei Momo, blasting over the PA. I was pretty thrilled.
Yale: Going to Cuba was the first trip I took with David. He was expecting me to have all the details covered and I was expecting him to bring books I would want to read. In both cases we were disappointed. After I had read all my books all he had was books by Carl Jung and Spanish language studies, no thanks. On my side we ran out of money! Pretty embarrassing actually. Cuba, having no relations with the U.S., is not permitted access to U.S. banks — hence no use of U.S. credit cards or travelers checks. Cash only. I didn’t bring enough for both of us and we almost got stranded with the rental car agents threatening to throw us in jail. They finally let us go and I sent them the money when I got back.
Cuba is an amazing place. As we were somewhat official guests, there were government functionaries in each town we arrived in. Not really the way I like to travel, so I rebelled at one point and tried to get us to eat in a restaurant we weren’t being taken too. After waiting in line for an hour with the line not moving, one of the government guys showed up. He said I thought you might have a little trouble. I had tried to find out what was going on, they wouldn’t even serve us a beer though we were at the bar, “Only those at tables get beer.” I had gone in the kitchen to ask why since there were empty tables the line was not moving. The restaurant staff was all standing around smoking cigarettes, not even cooking or anything.
The government guy found some people he knew who had a table and made them get up and we ended up eating the food they had ordered. I gave up rebelling after that.
Did the Cuban government ask you to do the Cuba compilations?
David: The Cuban governmant was pretty helpful–it’s their record label after all (although big artists have managed to arrange to have some measure of autonomy… their own publishing, for example). They assumed at first we’d want all the “classics” –Beny Moré etc — but we were interested just as much in the little side roads that this music occasionally took. The a capella rhythm section of Grupo Vocal Sampling and the cool doo-wop sounds of Los Zafiros… and anything with a wah-wah, an early synth sound or Farfisa organ was of special interest.
How did you go about finding the artists?
David: Some we knew already — Los Van Van and others — some we stumbled upon while rumaging through the EGREM vaults, and some through friends like Ned Sublette of Qbadisc, a label which releases contemporary Cuban music.
What’s up with Vijaya Anand?
The Story of Vijaya Anand
or: How Does One Go About Licensing Indian Film Music Anyway?
Yale: In 1986 my girlfriend and I went to India. It was my second time and her first. Some friends of ours received a grant to study painting in India for six months and had come back with a cassette of some really cool Indian film music that I imagined had been made by some young guy in a basement studio with some samplers.
They bought the tape in Mysore and it was a very hand done cover that said Vijaya Anand Dance Raja Dance. I had heard quite a bit of “filmi”, but this music was different. Much more current-sounding, with the wonderful kitsch amalgamations of different musics, including electronic dance music.
I knew that Mysore, being a relatively small town, would probably not be where the cosmopolitan Vijaya Anand would live. He probably lived in the nearby Bangalore, known the Silicon Valley of India, the center of all things high-tech. So we went to Bangalore.
I went into the first cassette shop I found near where we were staying and asked the folks behind the counter if they knew where I could find the person who made this tape (holding up tape). I know it sounds like a ridiculous way to go about things but I had a label called Icon that had done a few non-Western records, and found that often communities of music-related people are rather small and everyone knows one another.
Anyway they said, “Oh, Dance Raja Dance, that was a very good movie.” (My first glimpse that I was not going to be dealing with some guy in a basement.) “Why don’t you go down to the building next to the movie theater and ask them?”
OK, I can see where this is going. After walking around in circles in “the building next to the movie theater”, I decided to ask at the movie theater box office (I know, I know, but it isn’t New York here, you know.) “Oh, Dance Raja Dance, that was a very good film, played here for many weeks.” Do you know Vijaya Anand? “Oh yes, very good music director.” Any idea where I can find him? “No.”
“Well, you could try this address.”
The search continues. After walking through a neighborhood of film promotion and distribution offices with people painting those huge Indian film billboards on the street, I come to an office of what is obviously the film’s distributor. Lots of rusting film cans and a couple of guys bent over very large ledger books making inscriptions.
Um, do you know where I can find film composer Vijaya Anand? “What are you crazy, why would we know about where a film composer is?” They look at me like I’m crazy. Does he ever come by here? “OK look, why don’t you go over to the South Indian Film Board Chamber of Congress and ask them?”
More walking in the Indian afternoon heat. And there it is, the South Indian Film Board Chamber of Congress. Why didn’t someone mention this in the first place? Well, let’s not speak so soon. Hello, excuse me, I am looking for a film composer named Vijaya Anand. “Oh sure we know him, do you want his address?”
Wow. So easy. Well, not yet. It turns out he lives in Madras, clear across the country. Though he does music for Kanada language films shown in the state of Karnatica, he speaks and lives in the Tamil state of Tamil Nadu. So I guess I’ll have to meet up with him on another trip.
Vijaya Anand Part 2
Yale: It’s now three years later, 1989, and I have written Vijaya at the address The South Indian Film Board Chamber of Congress had given me. I didn’t expect an answer and didn’t get one. A few years earlier, I had done a record of an Indonesian music called jaipong with the singer Idjah Hadidjah. I had written to her Indonesian producer, Gugum Gumbira, and then showed up on his doorstep months later. The letter had meant a lot to him, as the Indonesian jaipong craze was waning and he was at a turning point in his life. To have some foreigner interested in his work up to that point turned out to be an invigorating situation for him.
But nothing is that easy in India.
My girlfriend Leslie and I showed up in Madras and gave Vijaya a call. The next day Vijaya and a whole retinue show up at our hotel with flower bouquets for both of us. Flowers! In my five trips to India I had never seen flowers (for non-religious purposes) for sale, where did he get those? Anyway, here the complications begin. Vijaya, though he has not yet made this apparent, does not speak English. Actually he does speak it, but doesn’t feel he speaks it well enough to talk to us. So his cousin, John, does most of the talking.
John tells us he will return on the next day and we will set about licensing the various tracks from someone. Nobody really seems to know who that will be yet.
I’ll shorten what would be a long-winded explanation of a week of futile days sitting a small hotel room waiting with cousin John calling every morning to say everything is worked out and he would be right over. And waiting in this hotel room all day until John would call again at five in the evening and say everything had been worked out but it was too late, and he would be over first thing the next morning. Needless to say I went nuts, fell on the floor screaming, and finally gave up the whole idea.
Leslie and I instead went to the beach (about 50 miles down the coast; in India it’s a three hour drive.) Of course we got to the beach and the women at the hotel had an urgent message from cousin John. I called, and of course he had it all worked out and I should just come back to Madras.
A couple of days later I go back and meet cousin John. He says he has set up a meeting with a big South Indian film producer and if I tell him what a big fan I am of his films we’ll be able to get the rights to the music. Ok, I’m game.
We meet the guy, sitting behind a large desk and I do my best Dustin Hoffman imitation which seems to work. But the end result is he really only has the films with the music in them, no separate tapes, so I give up. We have a nice vacation in South India.
Vijaya Anand Part 3
Yale: In 1990 I started working with David Byrne at Luaka Bop, and he asked what projects I was working on for my label Icon. Among them, and his favorite, was the Vijaya Anand material. He said “I always wanted to do something with Indian filmi music.” So OK, I thought, let’s give it another try. This time I hired someone in India to help. His name was Rajashekeran, and he was a teacher of Tamil to American college students studying in Madurai. I don’t remember where we found him. But this time it all worked out. In fact, I left extra time thinking this was going to take forever to get three Indian record companies, in three different cities, to license the tracks we wanted and sign contracts. In effect we paid Rajashekeran to sit in the record companies’ offices and make sure the appropriate party did not go out of town when I was showing up. For some reason it seems incredibly common for the person you need to speak with to be traveling or somehow unavailable when you, who have traveled thousands of miles to see them, arrive.
David was then to show up in South India and we were going to record a new track with Vijaya Anand’s orchestra of musicians and David singing. Since I had extra time I went to Goa, which I had always avoided due to its reputation as a hippie haven. It was that, but still very cool with a very different culture and incredible, heavily spiced food, unlike any other I have had in India.
Off to Madras to meet up with David. After he arrived we met with Vijaya at our hotel. David had sent Vijaya a tape of his song that he wanted him to play and so Vijaya had an arrangement ready for us to listen to. It was very jazz-fusion. I am sure that is what Anand thought was sophisticated and what we would want, when what we really wanted was a cool traditional Indian film music mishmash. As we were going to record the next day, we were a bit freaked out. We told Vijaya what we were looking for, but you never know how things get translated.
The next day we showed up at the studio unsure of what we were going to hear. The studio itself was a 2” 16-track place, totally spotless, probably about five years old with quite a big recording room and six(!) isolation booths. Everything was to be recorded at the same time with almost no overdubs. One iso booth had three ethnic percussion players who played regional South Indian hand percussion, one booth had the tabla and sitar players, one booth had the horn section, one booth had the bass player, one booth had the background singers, one booth had the synth player and the main room had the string section.
These were musicians that Vijaya had used on many of his recordings. The synth player was the kid that I had expected to find in that basement in Bangalore so many years before. He was one of those kind of nerdy kids that somehow manages to amass a bunch of equipment in India, and was able to figure it all out on his own. I got to work with him on the sound effects “solo” in the middle of the track where we sampled Vijaya’s voice, imitated a fight and quoted the Singing in the Rain-type scenes so popular in Indian movies for the ensuing wet saris (and what you see through them).
It all went really well and the music worked out great. As you can imagine, the whole thing was quite a gas. Lots of people hanging around — not that they knew who David was, it was just that since he wasn’t an Indian performer, it must be for Star TV (that was the South Asian MTV equivalent at that time, and really the first musical window on the outside world. India was the only country in the world that made Beatles and Rolling Stones 78s! A big hit in India on one of my trips was the soundtrack to The Sound of Music — years after it originally came out).
Of course, when the time came to take the tapes, a problem arose. The studio had twenty 2” tapes that all their recordings were done on — recording over all that had come before. They were not too interested in us taking one, even if we paid for it separate from the cost of the recording. It’s not easy — in fact it’s impossible — to get 2” tape in India.
Finally they let us take it if we promised to replace the tape. So we had Brenda at the Luaka office in New York send the studio a tape by DHL. That cost $120, but had an Indian duty on it of $500 and never got out of customs. We finally had a friend hide a reel in his luggage and drop it off on his trip to South India. (Since India makes tape, they want to protect their manufacturing and don’t allow outside importation of tape. Of course they don’t make 2” tape).
Next problem was when it was time to mix the track for its appearance on the Blue in the Face soundtrack, the well-worn magnetic particles started shedding off the mylar backing! Yikes. Someone at the studio in New York had heard that when this happens you need to bake the tape in an oven! Many calls later we found someone who had done this before. It worked, and the results can be heard by all.
On to other artists.
In three albums, Zap Mama has evolved from an a capella vocal group into a full-fledged band. What originally attracted you to them?
David: Zap Mama’s first CD was passed on to us by someone… maybe their manager… I’m not sure now. I heard it while I was on a European tour and called Yale immediately and said, this is great, can we get them at least for the States? So, although their first pan-cultural a capella CD was great, and everyone who saw them loved them, we wondered where Marie and company would go from there. They’ve evolved into a band of sorts… really just adding beats ‘n’ bass to their vocal textures and harmonies and doing some songs that have more words than they used to have. In other words, they’ve broadened their pan-cultural approach to include the North American R&B styles, from slow jams to reggae to rap… and they still mix it with everything else. Where they go next is anyone’s guess.
What is the Afropea concept about, and where did it come from?
David: I see a new continent, a virtual musical and culinary continent emerging in Europe — Afropea — the Africans and generations of kids of African descent have assimilated Euro and American styles and are making adventurous and exciting mixtures in music and food, and in every other aspect of culture. Just like the U.S. is, whether one admits it or not, an African cultural colony… so, too, has Europe been colonized by their former colonies. For the better, I think. So this moniker, this Afropea name, is a kind of suble manifesto… making visible what already exists.
Did you think that this sort of evolution was possible? What was the original reaction to Afropea 1?
David: Overall, we think of the music we work with as contemporary pop music, and we try to present it as such. While something like Zap Mama’s first record could be, and sometimes was, perceived as an “ethnic” record, we did our damnedest to alter that perception. The CD covers go a long way, in my opinion, to creating this attitude. We don’t do covers that look like folkloric records or like academic records of obscure material of interest only to musicologists and a few weird fringe types… we work with the designers to come up with a graphic statement that says “this music is a relevant to your life and is as contemporary as Prodigy, Fiona Apple, or Cornershop.” Stephan Sagmeister, who did the Telling Stories to the Sea compilation package, also did the latest Rolling Stones and Aerosmith covers, which I hope paid his rent. So gradually, although Zap Mama might have initially been thought of as an “ethnic-folkloric” ensemble, they are now thought of just as a cool group.
Where did the idea for Afropea III: Afro-Porto come from, and why did it take so long to do?
David: Telling Stories to the Sea is a compilation of Afro-Portuguese artists and collects singers and musicians from many of the former Portuguese colonies… São Tomé, Angola, Cabo Verde, etc.
Both Yale and I, it turns out, had been making our own little personal collections of this stuff over recent years, and in the course of various trips to Lisbon we’d accumulated some wonderful and surprising tracks. Some stuff like Paulo Bragança’s CD were given to us by the late Luis Mateus, who had a radio show in Lisbon and was a great promoter and enthusiast for all types of Portuguese-language music. Other stuff was picked up at flea markets and record shops in Lisbon. We were determined to showcase both the “class” and the “trash”… not just the beautiful poetic songs of Waldemar Bastos and Cesaria Evora, but also the rocking garage funk tracks of Jacinta Sanches and Tulipa Negra. We’re convinced that innovations and beauty don’t always come from the culturally sanctioned places and names… they sometimes come from bar bands and party bands.
We realized that this was a difficult musical concept to swallow for many… much of the stuff we were determined to mix in with the “classier” tracks was decidedly impure, filled with scratchy guitars and influences from deep funk to disco, but it’s a joyous and vital part of the scene… so in it went. To get the rights to re-release the Bana track, Yale and I went up to New Bedford, Massachusetts, a Cape Verdean community, and caught his swinging performance at a social club located over a small-town bowling alley. There is a direct flight from the Cape Verdean islands to Boston, should you be interested.
In an instance of typical Bostonian racial harmony, all the Cape Verdeans were being evacuated from the building as we pulled up. On asking a cop, I was told it was a “bomb scare.” However all the white bowlers on the ground floor of the same building were left in peace… blissfully ignorant of the bomb threat over their heads. The concert proceded as planned after about an hour’s delay… with fantastic Cabo Verdean dishes served out of huge pots in the center of the room.
Yale: Musician Kip Hanrahan was a good friend of mine. He had honeymooned in Portugal and brought me back a bunch of Afro-Portuguese tapes. I suggested to David that we do a compilation of the stuff and then had to spend four years trying to get the very suspicious African community in Portugal to trust me. Many of the songs we used came from one label, IEFE, which was owned by a little white Portuguese guy who had run a pressing plant in Angola. He had realized how much this music was selling to the African community and started a label. He had really good taste and recorded fairly unique material. One of my favorite cuts we licensed from him is by Jacinta Sanches. A lot of people ask us about this one looking to find more recordings by her, which really makes me laugh. While I was transferring the IEFE tapes at the TSF Radio studios I asked the IEFE guy why the two Pedro Ramos tracks I was transferring sounded different, with one sounding like it was a woman singing. He said well that actually isn’t Pedro on that track, but his girlfriend Jacinta singing with his band. She was in the studio at the time and he decided to have her sing one of his songs. It was not even credited this way on the original release!
Another cool thing about this release is that while I was working on it, a friend of mine who worked at Nonesuch Records came by and heard some of the tracks. When the Cesaria Evora track came up, he asked who it was. The rest is history.
Why did you start to do more individual artist’s records, as opposed to compilations?
David: I’ve never had an artistic plan with this label — there are no guidelines as far as what we’re going to do or what kind of music it might be. Hell, at one point we tried to help Glenn Branca do an orchestral record, using a Russian orchestra. We failed, but someone else succeeded. That would have been an avant-classical record, I guess… as would the record of contemporary Russian composer Alexander A. Knaifel, which also didn’t happen.
But lots of other stuff we heard, we did manage to see recorded and eventually release. We’re fans who are in the lucky position of being able to support the stuff we like. Most music fans who hear something strange and wonderful can only hope that someday some label will release it, and then they can tell their friends that they heard it first… or that they heard it in a little club, and, of course, it was much better then. We hope we’ve outgrown the latter tendencies… but the urge to aid and support the stuff we like is still strong. And, of course, that includes individual artists.
Yale: This was one of the first records I worked on when I started at Luaka Bop. Tom stayed at my house when we were shooting a video for Massive Hits, and I’ll never forget the look on my girlfriend’s face when she walked into our house and heard these very strange human sounds coming from nowhere, “Um Ah Um A Um A.” It was Tom rehearsing his lip-synching for the next day’s video shoot. I’ll also never forget picking Tom (who had never been out of Brazil before) up at the airport. I had to get up at seven in the morning to meet his early morning flight. He was the last one out of customs with a little red bag and a weird “donut” thing that he sat on during the trip. I thought it was some bizarre kind of hat.
Anyway, we are so proud of Tom and his music. He is unique and wonderful, you really have to hear him.
David: I picked up a record with the word “samba” in the title and a black-and-white image of barbed wire on the cover when I was in Rio on my Rei Momo tour (with the Latin big band). When I finally got home, I listened to it, and boy was I suprised! It was Tom’s record Estudando o Samba, or Learning the Samba, which was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as it was more like Deconstructing the Samba. It was songs and intrumentals, the best of which are featured on our first Tom Zé compilation, which combined Western avant-garde techniques with fractured versions of Brazilian rhythms, and lyrics that verged on concrete poetry. I was knocked out! Why had I never heard of this guy before?!
Who was he? Was there more?
Now, I’d heard some Brazilian experimental music before… it has a long history… from Uakti playing on drums made of lengths of PVC pipe to Hermeto Pascoal, who was rumored to have “played” a pig at one point. But Tom’s stuff worked (just barely) within the structures and grooves of pop — Brazilian pop — but Brazilian pop that was aware of, or was running parallel to, the wildest but catchiest stuff from anywhere you could name. I asked Arto Lindsay, a friend from the CBGB’s days who had grown up in Brazil, and helped me with the first compilation, about Tom. He told me Tom had been involved with the Tropicalista generation. He collaborated with all the original innovators who shocked Brazilian audiences back in the late ’60s early ’70s by incorporating rock and funk styles into Brazilian music… Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and the rest. But while most of these artists found their niches in Brazilian pop, Tom continued to remain on the fringe. His second record, Todos os Olhos, was released during the height of the censorship period in Brazilian music, during the dark years of the military dictatorship. It featured on the cover a blurry picture of what looked kind of like an eye… but in fact was a marble stuck in Tom’s ass… a “fuck you” to the dictatorship.
When we released our first compilation of Tom’s stuff, he was on the point of retiring from music. No Brazilian label would touch him, and he was becoming a footnote in Brazilian musical history. He was at the point of packing up and going back to his parents’ dry goods store in a little country town in the Northeast. But the record resurrected his career, and got his creative juices flowing. He is currently wrapping up his third release for us.
Yale: Sarah Caplan, who works as David’s assistant, brought in a tape by some friends of hers. The tape spine said Geggy Tah Tah, and I thought this was the name of the guy/group/entity. Again, one of those situations I imagined a lone figure in a basement in Brooklyn making avant-soul. I was blown away and thought, well, if David isn’t into this I’ll do it for my old label outside of Luaka Bop. I sent it to him on the road and, as it turned out, he immediately came back with “sign them.” The guy in a basement in Brooklyn turned out to be two white kids in Southern California using incredible sounds and musicianship to create a unique kind of pop. And the second Tah refered to one side of the tape being songs just by Tommy Jordan, the “Tah” of Geggy Tah.
David: Geggy Tah’s demo tapes were passed on to us by Sarah Caplan, my assistant and sometime collaborator in the realms of photography, books, etc. She had kept in contact with Tommy (Tah) since their days at Oberlin college in Ohio (Liz Phair was another classmate) and passed on their cassette demo, which was one of the weirdest, most surprising things we’d ever heard. It was truly like nothing else, and there were great songs and hooks in the madness as well.
Both this stuff and Tom Zé seemed so out on the fringe (at the time) and so inspiring and exciting to us that we HAD to put it out. And, lo and behold, their second record had a hit single on it, “Whoever You Are.” They’re just now wrapping up their third record, which has the most beautiful and unexpected songs on it. It makes me personally envious when I hear it, which is good.
Yale: I produced a John Zorn record for my label ICON called The Big Gundown (came out through Nonesuch in 1986). And though John and I had been friends with each other before (we had worked together in a record store), the year-long odyssey of producing this record made us much closer. He had fallen in love with Japan and had an apartment there, and every time he went, he brought back lots of Japanese records. Among them some by Kina Shoukichi. I was totally taken by this music and we decided that we would travel together to Okinawa to find him so I could do a record with him for ICON. We did go, but didn’t find him. I had heard he was worshipping trees in India at the time.
A year or so after I got to Luaka Bop, David pulled out his Shoukichi Kina collection and said how about this? I own about 10,000 LP’s, and David has maybe a fifth of that. In his travels around the world people always give him records that he “has to have”, and he always has an uncanny way of picking out the best records when he is in a store. Anyway I really got a first-hand look at the Japanese negotiation style on this one. Really knock-down drag-out, and we basically had to walk away to make it all happen.
David: Kina Shoukichi, as he is known in Japan, comes from Okinawa, but had a huge impact on the Japanese pop scene as early as the mid-‘70s. He was probably the first to mix traditional intruments, asian melodies and singing with rock and reggae beats… the first real “Japanese” artist to do so. Other well-known Japanese artists such as Yellow Magic Orchestra, with founding member Ryuichi Sakamoto, were somewhat cloder to Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder than they were to Asia… and The Sadistic Mika Band, whose lead singer married British ace producer Chris Thomas (Sex Pistols, Pretenders, etc) were also modeled very closely on Western models, but with a wicked Asian attitude. So, it took an Okinawan (Kina Shoukichi, as he is properly known, is Okinawan, not Japanese) to lead the way and make the breakthrough in Japanese pop for something truly unique and different to come into being.
On one of their later albums Ry Cooder (he’s everywhere!) joined them on some killer tracks… “Jin Jin,” “Flowers From My Heart,” and more…
Why did we release this compilation? Well, Yale and I discovered one day that we were both fans of this relatively obscure band… and that through friends and others we could locate rare singles and early material… enough to make a good-sounding compilation. Maybe not surprisingly, this compilation was one of our worst-selling records ever. People claim it was the strange high-shrill quality of the backing singers voices that put them off, but we suspect that despite being a killer collection with some great grooves and some wonderful swinging styles, the sounds of Asia that don’t fit the blissed-out New Age Zen Meditative esoteric concept are difficult for Westerners to get into. Anyway, the group’s live shows are wonderful, so catch them if you can… an experience that is almost more a rally or a celebration than a formal concert.
Blue in the Face
Blue in the Face was the soundtrack for a film by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster. It was a spinoff of the movie Smoke, with Harvey Keitel, which was filmed on location in Brooklyn, and it was this kind of all-star improvised project. They wanted to use a Zap Mama song originally, and then asked for another track from us, and then another. We said we should talk about this, about doing the whole thing. Make it a Brooklyn theme. Someoned mentioned the actor/playwright/spoken word artist Danny Hoch to us as a cool performer, and his interludes give the feel of traveling through Brooklyn. That mix of cultures allowed for artists like Vijaya Anand, Zap Mama and Latin, hip-hop, reggae and funk to all fit in.
Yale: A friend at Warners thought we would be interested in a UK band that played rock on sitars and sang (sometimes) in Punjabi. He gave me a pre-release tape of the first album on Wiija, which I loved. I think it took me and Kat (who also loved it) about four months to convince David that they should be on Luaka.
David: Cornershop came to us in a similar manner. Someone at their UK label, Wiija, asked themselves “Who in America would be interested in this punky sitar band?”, which they were at the time. Well, right again… they were rough around they edges to begin with, but I guess we could see that they were headed in a direction that no one else dared travel. And we liked it.
Yale: David’s Spanish teacher, Bernardo Palumbo, is also a musician, and was a part of the pan-Latin American Nueva Trova movement. Through this, Bernardo knew Susana and had done a video for a song of hers in Peru called “Maria Landó.” He played a cassette of this for David. I think it was a few years even before there was a Luaka, and David always remembered the haunting intensity of her voice. When we decided to do a compilation of this material it took us quite a while to track her down (Bernardo had moved outside of NY at this point). We finally found her when David, who was on tour at the time, went into a photo gallery in Austin, Texas, and noticed a catalog from a past show of “Afro-Peruvian Photographs.” We contacted the photographer, Lorry Salcedo, about providing photos for our compilation and, by the way, asked him if he knew a Susana Baca. Amazingly enough, she was his neighbor in Lima!
David: My classes sometimes consisted of translating lyrics by bands and songs I liked, or talking about music, and at one point he played me a videotape of Susana singing “Maria Landó.” I had to see it again. I took home an audio dub. I asked, Are there more records like this? Where does this music come from? What kind of music is this?
So Susana’s version of this song became the lead-off track on our well received compilation of Afro-Peruvian music. My own version, which I had been doing live on the South American leg of my Rei Momo tour, was the last track. As a consequence, Susana did some live dates, which were great, especially the New York show at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn. We asked her if she would be interested in making a studio version of what she was doing live — simple, direct, honest versions of her own songs and some Afro-Peruvian classics. Some previous records of this material had been pop-ified, lounge-ized or tarted up in various ways, but she liked the direct approach and she agreed. There are some hints of a possible new direction on the record as well.
Yale: I was talking to Melanie Ciccone, who manages producer Daniel Lanois, and asked what she was listening to. She told me about Jim White. He sounded interesting to me and so she said she would get Jim in touch with me. Eventually he sent a tape but didn’t include an address or phone number. Nice going, Jim. It took a while, but I did find him. As it turned out he had sent the tape to a friend in LA (not Melanie) whose child is in preschool with Melenie’s daughter. She gave Jim’s tape to Melanie, since she was in the music business. Jim had sent the tape to record companies previously (including Warners) who told him he might want to think about getting another profession.
David: Jim White’s demos were passed on to us by Melanie Ciccone, who had recieved them, the story goes, from her husband, Joe Henry, whose record was pretty great. I gather it was a case of “who might appreciate this stuff?”… and we were the answer, I guess. And they were right.
Los Amigos Invisibles
Yale: David bought their first record at Tower. I heard it and said we’ve got to sign them. I don’t think David was as sure of this as I was. When I heard that they had gotten out of their original contract, I started talking to their personal manager, Alberto Cabello. David was still unsure about signing them and made me go to Caracas to see them live. The first show I saw at a university was a demonstration of some theater lighting company’s equipment, so it was almost entirely in the dark with tons of smoke and dramatic lighting. To top it all off they were terrible and I spent a sleepless night in my Caracas hotel room trying to figure out what to tell David now. Luckily their next show in a club was great.
David: I’m aware that there is an image of me traveling the world in search of crazy new sounds… but my first hearing of this group is actually more typical. I was in Tower Records on lower Broadway and was just browsing and spotted this CD amongst the other Latin Rock records… with a Japanese anime character on the cover. That alone set it apart from the pack, but the music was great, too (it turns their logo was designed by Andrew Blanco, the singer of King Changó, but we didn’t know this at the time).
It turned out their label in Venezuela barely released their first record and didn’t really know what do do with them. So, Yale saw them live and I suggested they work with producer Andres Levin, whom I’d been introduced to by Arto Lindsay, when we worked together with Marisa Monte on the Red Hot and Rio record. The Amigos’ record is amazing and they’re great live, too.
Yale: The woman who cuts David’s hair is friends with Mimi. Mimi wanted to talk to David about songwriting and maybe collaborating with him on some songs. The next thing you know, she was signed.
David: Mimi was the singer in Hugo Largo, a wonderful group whose early efforts were produced by Michael Stipe and released on Brian Eno’s label. But they had disbanded some years ago. I had shared a bill with them at a benefit for the London ICA, so we knew one another. (Their former bass player, a great musician and the most aggressive member of the group, turned out to become the A&R man who signed Hootie and the Blowfish!) So one day I was getting a haircut on Ludlow street and Valerie said, scissors in hand, “Hey, d’you wanna hear Mimi’s new demos?” Said and done, and Mimi lived right aound the corner, so I got a copy to take home. More than half the final record was produced by Hahn Rowe, the former guitarist and violinist of Hugo Largo. He had also done the demos, which sounded so good to me that I immediately asked Hahn if he would collaborate with me on some of my own stuff. (Hahn, as well as working with Mimi, has another group, dealing in improvised electronic swing, called Circuit Bible — no relation to Circuit City, the retail chain.) In Mimi’s current live band Hahn plays guitar, violin and turntables. The rest of Mimi’s record was produced by Hector Zazou, the French artist and producer of Tales of the Cold Seas and Sahara Blue, among other records.
Yale: David went to see Cafe Tacuba at SOB’s in New York and King Changó opened for them. He came back talking about how Andrew Blanco, the lead singer, was an incredible performer, jumping on top of the stage speakers and basically being a non-stop whirlwind. He had gotten an early tape from the band which I just thought was ok. But David kept after me about them, “you should sign them, someone else will, they’re really good.” I went to see them and he was right. Probably one of the best live bands I’ve seen.
So we signed them and gave them money to record two new songs and mix their tape in Italy with Kwanzaa Posse. Unbeknownst to us, they had fired their guitar player, who absconded with the recordings they had made. They used the money we gave them to re-record the whole record in one week!!
David: I saw these guys countless times in clubs and concerts in New York, opening, it seemed, for every great Rock en Español act that came through town, from Cafe Tacuba to Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. And every time they got a little better… until eventually I told Yale to check them out… they’re happening and they’re right in our own backyard. Being a “fellow traveller” in Santeria, I was also attracted to the band being named after the flirtatious Warrior God of Thunder and Justice. At some point in the making of their record, knowing that they were great fans of Mano Negra, the legendary French/Latin/Whatever conglomorate, we suggested that they work with the mixing arm of that band, the Kwanzaa Posse… who work out of Naples, Italy (where a lot of cool stuff is happening, by the way).
David: Like Susana, Waldemar’s was a standout track on a compilation, in this case the Afro-Portuguese CD. And once again, having seen how strong his live performances were (I sat in with him at a Lisbon show once, and he and his band with me) we asked if he was interested in making a record like this… uncluttered, swinging and passionate. Yale, Kat and I also saw him perfrom at a Portuguese social club in, of all places, Providence, Rhode Island(!), another branch of the Lusitanian enclave in New England. I myself had lived in Providence when I went to college and after, but here was a part of the town I had never experienced… great food, dancing, swinging music, beautiful women, Portuguese wine. I’d always wondered what went on in those “social clubs,” and now I sort of knew. As Arto Lindsay had produced great (hit) records for Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte among others, we asked if he would help with Waldemar’s record… and the result is Pretaluz. Check it out.
In the hat business...
"Overall, we think of the music we work with as contemporary pop music, and we try to present it as such."