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Ten Years of Luaka Bop

By Josh Kun

JULY 17, 2000:  Back in 1973, veteran film editor Walter Murch was working on American Graffiti and trying to create something new with the film's Wolfman Jack sound material -- commercials, hit songs, DJ rants. As he recounts in the current issue of Film Quarterly, his task was to turn the soundtrack into a cohesive soundscape, to make every car cruising San Francisco a player in a citywide radiophonic symphony. "Worldizing" is what Murch calls this process of manipulating sound until "it seemed to be something that existed in real space."

One of the aspects I've always appreciated about Luaka Bop, the New York City record label founded by David Byrne back in 1989, is that the Luaka folks seem to understand the difference between "world music" and music that's "worldizing." Since the label's first compilation of never-before-anthologized Brazilian masterpieces from the '70s and '80s, Beleza Tropical, Luaka Bop has avoided the usual traps of world-music marketing -- colonial discovery, traditional music = authenticity, records as museum pieces, west-and-the-rest geographies, we-are-the-world one-love-isms -- in favor of the music that exists in the real spaces of the global everyday.

Which isn't to say that there aren't traditional elements to the Luaka formula -- Cornershop's harmonium drones, say, or Cesaria Évora's Cape Verdean morna. Rather that these traditional sounds and instruments are there to confront, interact with, and negotiate with modernity, not to avoid it, run from it, or remain untainted by its supposed corruptions.

Shoukichi Kina, a weirdo Japanapopster who draws equally from traditional Okinawan instruments and Western rock, is the best example of this. His greatest-hits collection, Peppermint Tea House, bombed for precisely the reason the label put it out, because it didn't conform to any preconceived notion of Asianness -- in Byrne's words, "sounds of Asia that don't fit the blissed-out new-age Zen meditative esoteric concept" that Western ears have come to fetishize for late-night spiritual fixes and post-work yoga sessions.

The point is not that Luaka has had to search long and hard for artists who work at these intersections of tradition and modernity, or that the label is on some relentless fusion quest for bands who mix coastal Colombian soukous with Zappa guitar hallucinations (Bloque) or Studio 54 disco with Caracas merengue (Los Amigos Invisibles). Check the two-disc set Byrne and his co-conspirator Yale Evelev have put together to celebrate the label's 10-year anniversary, the new Zero Accidents on the Job, and you'll hear the real point: Luaka is a platform to the other side of world music, the music of collision and collage that's long existed anywhere history has happened. Luaka Bop's sole criteria for a release is impurity, some acceptance of the idea that everything everywhere is mixed up somehow with something else.

There are, of course, plenty of people who don't want to see the world this way, who want to hold onto the idea that cultures and nations work like singular units out of time -- floating, self-evident, isolated. So the challenge, for anyone invested in cultural change, is not how to change culture but how to change how culture is understood. The latter aim got buried in the '80s multiculturalism boom that treated diversity as a novelty, as something new that needed to be added to some make-believe cultural core.

But that boom was going bust just as Luaka began releasing compilations of contempo Brazilian and Cuban dance classics and putting forth a very different way of looking at the world. The label's mission, as Byrne has said of its Afropea series (three gorgeous compilations that document the postcolonial presence of African musical styles within contemporary Europe), is all about "making visible what already exists." Same goes for Luaka's first US comps of Brazil's Os Mutantes and Cuba's Silvio Rodríguez -- two artists who since the '60s have been practicing the kind of recombinant style collage that contemporary sample rats and gearheads are still getting credit for inventing.

Byrne has been Luaka's main visibility man. Either he stumbles onto the stuff the label releases or the stuff comes to him. Which is why the label's output can come off as uneven and arbitrary. It reflects little more than the tastes and moods of Byrne and Evelev -- what they like, what their hip friends toss their way, what they find interesting, what they think the rest of us might be interested in hearing.

So for every Zap Mama hook-up with the Roots that becomes both a clubby head nod and an NPR coffee break, there are Mimi's overindulgent electropoems, which no one who bought both Portishead albums needed to hear, and two albums worth of snoring AR Kane silliness. No matter: Byrne has made a side career out of being a professional fan. His label is just a more formal, more worldizing way of doing what we all do -- sharing stuff we think is cool with people we hope will get off on it.

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