INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Financial Times MARCH 29, 2006 - by David Honigmann
BREAKING OUT OF THE BUSH
As you can't have failed to notice, the 1980s are back. (Though in this parallel version, the most influential bands were Gang Of Four, Wired and The Clash, not the synth-pop and Stock, Aitken and Waterman those who grew up then recall.)
The '80s were good for world music, as well. The very term saw its birth (for the UK) in a meeting of worthies in an Islington pub in 1987. Paul Simon's Graceland brought South African music into the spotlight. Nearly twenty years later, the angels-dancing-on-a-pin debates about whether Simon had broken a cultural boycott are risible. Several other artists made their presence known too, by fair means or foul: Youssou N'Dour's guest spots with Peter Gabriel; Salif Keita's massive Soro, bringing a Parisian gloss to his Malian dance music; Ladysmith Black Mambazo selling truckloads of isicathimiya.
Another seminal artefact, in this case from 1981, is getting a shiny new re-release: David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, out on Virgin/EMI with seven bonus out-takes. When it was recorded, in 1979, Byrne and Eno had been working together on Talking Heads records, bringing African rhythms to the Heads' scratchy white funk. They conceived a record that would mix the primitive with the futuristic. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is a strange record: fragments of found sound are laid over clattering African percussion; the voices hint at narrative but there are no songs, only moods. The samples come from US radio presenters and evangelists, a Lebanese village singer, an exorcist in action. He and Byrne were drawn to religious sources, Eno has said: that was where passion was to be found.
Samples had been used before, notably by Stockhausen, Steve Reich and Holger Czukay. But My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts fashioned them into a plausible holistic soundscape. Like The Velvet Underground's first record, it was not widely heard but was widely influential. As David Toop notes in his sleeve notes, its echoes can be heard in everyone from Goldie to Public Enemy. Listen to Rebel Without A Pause, from Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and you can hear all Byrne and Eno's tricks: the Southern Baptist cadences of the sample, the nails-on-blackboard synth punctuation; the west African rhythms that find their way into Public Enemy via James Brown. Moby has made a career out of matching scratchy vinyl primitives to glossy beats.
Byrne and Eno were trendsetters in other ways as well. The release of the record was held up when the estate of one of the faith healers, Kathryn Kuhlman, objected to the use of a fragment of one of her sermons. Another track, Qu'ran, which used a sample of Algerians chanting the Koran, was expunged from subsequent pressings when Muslims objected.
Whether the record's influence was entirely benign is another question. Manu Chao made records of genius by combining sampled bricolage with irresistible tunes (something Byrne and Eno overlooked); in the hands of less talented imitators, their template has been reduced to pasting ethnic-sounding vocals over lumpen beats. Byrne and Eno married technology and the primitive, but kept the primitive at one remove. Since then, both have worked directly with artists from the rest of the world: Eno with Rachid Taha, Byrne with a range of South Americans. Collaboration beats appropriation.
The true heirs to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts are the bands that take the technique out of the hands of western rock stars. Aiwa and Orange Blossom are both French-based but with Middle Eastern roots: Aiwa were formed by the Iraqi-born brothers Wamid and Naufalle; Orange Blossom are fronted by the Algerian-born Leila Bounous. On their new albums, Elnar and Everything Must Change respectively, the groups serve up thrilling mixtures of driving percussion, distorted clips of speech, electronica and Arabic melodies. It is as if the ghosts had left the bush and taken control.