Well, it is the 21st Century and concurrently our 21st year of existence. The congruence of these two 21’s (as Tom Ze says, it is when you become a legal man,) seemed like something we should tell folks about. Not many record labels, especially ones that start out as a “give” on a major label solo artist deal, last this long. That could make us the kind of label that is incredibly safe, but since we really haven’t been incredibly safe we must instead be incredibly lucky.
We thought we’d celebrate 21 years with the “Twenty First Century, Twenty First Year” compilation of some our greatest “hits”.
Love, Luaka Bop
It goes without saying that staring at a prospective employer for 60 minutes is a foolproof plan for not landing a job. Unless said boss is David Byrne; in that case, awkward silences and nervous tics are par for the course.
“At my ‘interview,’ neither of us said more than four or five sentences for an hour,” explains Yale Evelev, Luaka Bop’s co-owner and main A&R man. “I kept thinking, ‘Shouldn’t he be asking questions?’ I remember the last thing David said was, ‘I have to do my laundry now because I just got off tour.’ The only thing that was clear to me in the end was, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
And so began the (strangely) beautiful relationship that’s sustained Luaka Bop for the past 19 years. (Twenty-one if you count the time Byrne spent without a staff.) A lot has changed since 1990, though. That’d be the year Evelev left his own label—the eight-year-old Icon Records (sample release: The Big Gundown — John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone)—and a programming post at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to focus on one of the industry’s most visionary boutique imprints.
Theoretically speaking, the pairing was perfect: Warner Bros. pressed Byrne’s solo projects, and in turn, provided an outlet for whatever he and Evelev deemed cool. The twist being just how personal such a proposition could be. After all, Luaka Bop was envisioned as a mass-produced extension of the cassettes Byrne often dubbed for friends, beginning with 1989’s immensely popular—and in many ways, label-defining—Beleza Tropical compilation. A learn-as-you-go-along proposition from the start, it clearly valued quality control over chasing trends.
“When we were connected to Warner Bros., they expected pop sales numbers,” says Evelev. “I remember one of the marketing people saying, ‘Yale, we want you to stop doing these compilations,’ during my first few months. And I go, ‘We just sold 350,000 copies of Beleza Tropical. Why would you want us to stop this?’ ‘Because we think you can do better. We think you should sign bands.’ What they really wanted, though, was for us to sign bands like the Talking Heads.”
And that’s where Luaka Bop’s brain trust begged to differ. While Byrne gladly signed their first original artist (Tom Zé) in 1992, Warner Bros. wasn’t exactly thrilled about his bizarre compositions and Beefheart-caliber brilliance. To give you an idea of Zé’s welcome eccentricities, the Tropicália icon was about to quit the business and return to his gas attendant job in Bahia when Luaka Bop came calling.
The 180’s kept coming in the years since, too, as Luaka Bop’s catalog chipped away at the tunnel vision theory of “David Byrne’s world music label.” That includes the following critical favorites: quirky French chanteuse twists on post-punk classics (Nouvelle Vague), a drifter in the dark with Tom Waits-ian tendencies (Jim White), a disco-funk band hell bent for the dancefloor (Los Amigos Invisbles), and a former acapella outfit stepped in a heady mix of R&B, hip-hop and Afro-pop (Zap Mama). Many of which witnessed Luaka Bop during its many incarnations, from its long-running Warner partnership to its stints with Virgin and V2. (The label finally became its own independent entity when V2 imploded in 2007.)
“We have always been admirers of any outlets that are doing something different, and particularly dig the Luaka Bop pressings of Os Mutantes, Los Amigos and Shuggie Otis,” says Cornershop frontman Tjinder Singh, who released his own seminal When I was Born For the 7th Time LP through the label. “World music itself seems to be a lazy term that defines others. However, Luaka Bop has always gone further than that, without feeding people too much information of the backgrounds of the artists. If people are going to get into it, they will, and if they have to do their own research it makes that experience more valuable.”
Or as Byrne puts it, “Luaka Bop tries to look at music without prejudice, without saying, ‘This belongs in this category and this belongs there.’ It’s like spinning the ideal radio dial and hearing interesting stuff coming out of lots of stations.”
The clearest example of this station-skimming pop philosophy just might be Luaka Bop: 21st Century, 21st Year, a striking overview of Luaka Bop’s ever-evolving roster. Just try to keep taps on the subgenres and pseudo scenes that are skimmed throughout: the widescreen R&B of Shuggie Otis (“Aht Uh Mi Hed’), the Afro-Peruvian poetics of Susana Baca (“No Valentim”), the hook-slinging mania of Geggy Tah (“Whoever You Are”), the breezy Tropicália balladry of Os Mutantes (“Baby”), and so on. Hearing the label reinvent itself with every release makes 21st Century one of Luaka Bop’s most revealing compilations, a glaring reminder that Byrne and Elevev are just as blissfully confused as you are. How else to explain the fact that they once followed Susana Baca’s Espíritu Vivo with The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need, Vol. 1?
“To be honest, I never knew what the hell David wanted,” admits Evelev. “At first, it was a little daunting, but after a while I realized he loved to be pulled into different worlds—different clubs, different restaurants, different musicians, different graphic designers, different countries.”
One has to wonder, then: How many years did it take for you two to get comfortable with one another’s push-and-pull ideas?
Evelev pauses, laughs and says, “Um, 20 years?”
Twenty First Century Twenty First Year:Baby- Os Mutantes the ‘civil age’ where the ‘creature’ becomes responsible for everything he does.
When I was 17 (in 1953), my first girlfriend read my hand and made predictions with a concentrated and curious expression on her face. (In Bahia, every girl has a bit of witchcraft about her.) “It says on your life line that you will die relatively early,” she explained, “But the line is reborn and carries on immensely.” Luaka Bop has fulfilled this prediction fully and lovingly. In 1990, I became the first artist contracted by LB, who gave me a new life, great joys, commemorated work, and respectability outside of Brazil. This last one represents something completely unexpected. I never thought I would be heard outside my country, nor did I think I would have such a generous boundary-less mother as has happened with the general public in the U.S and in Europe
Viva Luaka Bop! —Tom Zé
Since I had no life other than cab driving I went over straightaway. I thought maybe they would offer me a job as a janitor, or perhaps they needed their basement repainted or something. I walked into their office and the first thing I saw was a huge poster of Zap Mama. Suddenly I began to wonder if perhaps this wasn’t a joke, or even a terrible, terrible misunderstanding. Perhaps this was something else. But what?
I told the receptionist who I was and she asked me to take a seat. A moment later David Byrne himself came bursting down the hallway holding his hand out excitedly, “What a pleasure to meet you! I really love your music! Wow!” With that he spun on his heel, like some kind of manic hipster Willy Wonka and with the back of his head just a few inches from the end of my nose asked the receptionist in the same excited tone, “Is there any mail for me today?” She handed him a stack of letters and he began to read them and hum to himself.
After a minute or two of staring at the back of his head I decided to sit down. It was fine. It gave me time to think about what had just transpired. A world famous musician, someone who had been on the cover of Time magazine, had just said the exact words to me that I should have been saying to him. It was one of the most colossal inversions I had ever experienced. —Jim White, on his first day at the Luaka Bop office
I was at home and Dave Byrne called me in the nightfall, asking me about the Os Mutantes compilation Everything Is Possible. We spoke for a while, and I made suggestions on what songs should be included. We both chose the “dark sides”—our more unusual material. As we spoke, I remembered seeing his first gig at CBGB’s. It was a pleasure to see the cycle that started on a stage—with a girl ripping up telephone books—turn into a beautiful relationship. It was also a pleasure to meet and get to know Yale. Luaka is a symbol of energy renaissance and all the guys and girls that work there are a live testimony for it. —Sergio Dias of Os MutantesFor More Information Contact:
Samantha Tillman at Tell All Your Friends Pr
Ponta De Lanca Africano (Umbabarauma)- Jorge Ben
Aht Uh Mi Hed- Shuggie Otis
Fuzzy Freaky- David Bryne
Samba Sem Nunhum Probelma- Marcio Local
Keleya- Moussa Doumbia
Sexy- Los Amigos Invisibles
Rio Longe- Moreno +2
Bacalao Con Pan- Irakere
Valentin- Susana Baca
Sweet Melody- Zap Mama
Defeito 2: Curiosidade- Tom Ze
Whoever You Are- Geggy Tah
Static On The Radio- Jim White
Luaka Bop, According to Our Artists …
Twenty-one years? Wow! In Brazil, this is