Luaka Bop: An Introduction

As we prepare to welcome an all-star band to play the music of William Onyeabor this May as part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York, Richard Gehr profiles the label that unearthed the Nigerian synthesizer guru’s music: David Byrne and Yale Evelev’s Luaka Bop.

David Byrne’s rationale for launching his Luaka Bop label in 1988 was fairly simple. “I wanted to turn friends on to stuff I liked.” Today, of course, it’s difficult to recall a time when every track in the world wasn’t available somewhere on the Infinite Jukebox. In the late ‘80s, however, Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical arrived like a smart, sultry revelation; it was more a mixtape that engaged you from beginning to end rather than a playlist you’d lose interest in after a track-and-a-half.

Since then, Luaka has released some 85 albums, most of which explore music of the African diaspora – a wide spectrum reflected in Byrne’s work with Talking Heads and as a solo artist. The best labels are fan-driven, and Luaka is no exception. Somewhere between a gallery curator and hippest-guy-in-the dorm, Byrne, along with label president Yale Evelev, parlayed Talking Heads’ profitable career with Warner Bros. into a long if sometimes bumpy run.

Beleza Tropical kicks off with Jorge Ben’s “Ponta de Lança Africano (Umbabarauma).” This Afro-Brazilian soccer anthem reflects the Bahia-meets-Beatles fusion that flows throughout this post-bossa nova collection of MPB (música popular brasileira) recorded when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship. Beleza sold more than 350,000 copies and ignited international interest in the music of Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, and their Bahia-inspired ilk. In a 1999 interview commemorating Luaka’s first decade, however, Byrne claimed to have “never seen any money” from the release, and Luaka and Warners parted ways soon thereafter.

“[David] wanted to do a Silvio Rodriguez record and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not anybody’s idea of what Cuban music is’ – but we sold 400,000 copies, so OK!”

Yale Evelev

Luaka Bop’s first six releases consisted of four Brazil Classics compilations – including a best-of by Tropicália underdog Tom Zé – and two David Byrne solo albums, which were essentially Warner releases with a Luaka imprimatur. When he turned his attention to Cuba, Byrne opted counterintuitively to release Canciones Urgentes: The Best of Silvio Rodríguez, which featured a sweet-voiced Cuban singer-songwriter rather than the dance music usually associated with the island. It was something of a head scratcher for salsa fan Yale Evelev too, who recalls that Byrne “wanted to do a Silvio Rodriguez record and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not anybody’s idea of what Cuban music is’ – but we sold 400,000 copies, so OK!” (Evelev admits he might have had a blind spot when it came to pop.) Like a Cuban Bob Dylan, the pro-revolution Rodriguez sang poetic folk music with a pacifist bent, as in “Sueño de Una Noche de Verano” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream),” which contains images of fighter jets in the skies above peaceful, happy people.

Evelev, a knowing fan of Asian music who’d released influential albums of Indonesian music on his Icon label prior to arriving at Luaka, hoped to expand its scope in that direction with a new series devoted to Asia Classics. Unfortunately, 1992’s The South Indian Film Music of Vijaya Anand: Dance Raja Dance, turned out to be one of the label’s two worst-selling albums alongside its successor, 1994’s The Best of Shoukichi Kina: Peppermint Tea House. Dance Raja Dance remains one of Luaka’s more daring and experimental releases. Bollywood’s kitchen-sink aesthetic found its apotheosis in music director Anand’s folk rhythms, disco synths, fuzzy guitars, jazzy flutes, cheesy sound effects, and sultry vocals. It’s irony-free music of overwhelming maximalist pleasure.

Although their compilations were moving nicely at Warners, the label encouraged Evelev and Byrne to improve their numbers by signing new acts. This resulted in releases by California rockers Geggy Tah, British Indi-pop group Cornershop, and Latin ska outfit King Changó. Luaka’s first band signing, however, was the British dream pop duo A.R. Kane. Released in 1992, Americana collected tracks from Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala’s two dubby and danceable British releases, 69 and “i,” which never found the audience they deserved. The band’s magic had mostly dissipated by 1994, however, when the duo recorded New Clear Child for Luaka, although transcendent passages of oceanic funk still floated to the surface occasionally.

If any single artist reflected the Luaka Bop esthetic, it would probably be Tom Zé, the most outlandish and surreal member of the loosely knit Tropicalistas who revolutionized late ’60s Brazilian pop. Zé was on the verge of abandoning his musical career when Luaka released The Best of Tom Zé in 1994. Zé’s third Luaka release, 1998’s high-concept Com Defeito de Fabricação (Fabrication Defect), was the first to capture Zé in all his hilarious and subversive glory. Fabricação contains a handful of perfect songs with a twist. They’re exquisitely tuneful, glisteningly produced Brazilian gems, with lyrics such as “Screw your usury / In the multinational / Shove it up your Virgin / You son of a cross.”

By 1999, Evelev and Byrne had both wearied of trying to arm-twist the Warner machine, more accustomed to marketing the likes of Madonna and R.E.M., to work their niche releases. “I always used to say that we were a carbuncle on the side of a major label,” recalls Evelev. “David felt they really just wanted him to reform Talking Heads. He would put out solo records but didn’t feel they were taking them seriously, and Warner wasn’t really happy with how the records were doing. So he said, ‘Instead of putting out my next record, give me Luaka Bop,’ which Warner owned for all intents and purposes. And they did.” Warner was pressuring Luaka to drop Zap Mama and Tom Zé, which Byrne and Evelev were loath to do. “So we thought, let’s jump out of the plane.”

“I always used to say that we were a carbuncle on the side of a major label.... So we thought, let’s jump out of the plane.”

Yale Evelev

At Virgin, Luaka operated under the auspices of the label’s New Age subsidiary, Narada. The 2001 reissue of Shuggie Otis’s 1974 cult classic Inspiration Information was especially successful (and would be again when Sony Legacy re-reissued it in 2013). Otis’s album was Luaka’s second in a series of World Psychedelic Classics that kicked off in 1999 with The Best of Os Mutantes, an introduction to the tropicália movement’s very own Beatles. The next psychedelic volume, Love’s a Real Thing: The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa, would inspire an industrious coterie of crate diggers and lead to an explosion of ’70s funk from Nigeria and Ghana. Samy Ben Redjeb of Analog Africa, for one, told Evelev that he modeled the look and feel of his reissues after Love’s a Real Thing.

That record, according to Evelev, came about thanks to his late ’70s gig at the legendary Soho Record Center. Evelev and co-worker John Zorn used to go to the African Record Center, a shop and distributor on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, to buy records for the store. “I would buy all the funky, fuzzy, soul-y records for myself,” Evelev recalls. “And I said to David, before he left the label, ‘Why don’t we do a compilation of this?’“ Evelev worked on it as Luaka was leaving Virgin, but felt scooped when Strut put out Nigeria 70, with completely different tracks, before he got it together. “David and I were like, ‘Oh fuck, someone else is doing this!’”

Byrne suggested they include some of the Strut tracks on their record. “It pained me to do that, but it was a great move.” The Strut record did pretty well, but an English-based label has a different audience than an American imprint. “So we put out our version and one of those tracks was by William Onyeabor. And because of that track on our record, [Comb and Razor blogger] Uchenna Ikonne came to us and said, ‘Are you guys interested in doing a whole William Onyeabor record?’”

Who Is William Onyeabor? marks both Luaka Bop’s most recent release and the latest in the label’s singular ability to (re)discover, celebrate, and legitimize the otherwise low-profile work of some of the world’s more eccentric musical figures. A common strategy is to introduce them with a best-of compilation and later provide a deeper experience. Thus Evelev hopes to follow 2012’s Nobody Can Live Forever – The Existential Soul Music of Tim Maia and this year’s Who Is William Onyeabor? with Maia’s two albums of mind-bending religious music and Onyeabor’s complete catalog of smooth, cool synthesizer-centric Afrofunk.

Most of Luaka’s signings, it seems, have been inspired by the recommendations of friends. And while Evelev may think globally, he just as often acts locally. Thus the signings in recent years of both New Jersey Afropop instrumentalists Delicate Steve and squiggly psychedelic trance combo Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang, a band of cutting-edge Brooklynites led by a Sierra Leonean immigrant.

Characterized by beautifully designed and knowingly annotated packaging, the Luaka Bop catalog is also an ongoing art statement. David Byrne dodged criticisms of being a cultural carpetbagger to create a nimble, elegant vehicle for transmitting otherwise obscure creations to curious listeners around the world. Luaka Bop albums will still, if you allow them to, make you a smarter, happier, and more interesting person. And what more could you ask from a record label?

The header illustration for this feature was adapted from Paul Hornschemeier’s poster insert for Luaka Bop: Twenty First Century, Twenty First Year.

By Richard Gehr on April 15, 2014