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Friday, May 29, 2009

Happy Birthday, Luaka Bop

David Byrne's World Party

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During the 1980s, the Talking Heads broke out from their brittle, avant-punk, art-funk origins into a wider, world-conscious sound. Leading them on was David Byrne, a cultural omnivore drawn to obscure local music traditions from all over. Leveraging his commercial success with the Talking Heads, Byrne founded one of the world's best, most diverse boutique labels, Luaka Bop. Twenty-one years later, Luaka Bop marks its anniversary with Twenty FirstCentury Twenty First Year, a decade-spanning world music compilation whose scope is as great as its depth.

A cheeky, fold-open poster enclosed with the package tells the label's story in words and pictures. Basically, Luaka Bop migrated from major to minor labels over time. Byrne, whose enthusiasm continued even as the record industry imploded, recently reorganized it as a freestanding operation. Since Twenty First Century Twenty First Year samples only a small number of the excellent acts Luaka Bop released over the years, let's hope its arrival will encourage the reissuing many of the label's old albums.

Meanwhile, the compilation's opening track is reason enough to buy the CD and also to search for Brazil Classics 1, the album where it originally appeared. "Ponta de Lanca Africano" by Brazil's Jorge Ben moves with a deep blues groove, Afro-Caribbean percussion, the call and response of West African sacred music and a soulful Portuguese vocal. Simply put, it rocks.

Luaka Bop isn't resting on history, but continues to release new music by artists such as Marcio Local. Firmly grounded in the tropical rhythms and carnival beats of his Brazilian homeland, Local, like many acts Byrne brought to the wider world over the years, fuses his own heritage with global sonic currents emanating from the U.S. On his new CD, Says Don Day Don Dree Don Don, Local brings a little rap and lots of American soul into a sunny sound that remains unmistakably Brazilian.

Luaka Bop is both a model for how to run a label in the postmodern world and a look back at an era when music moguls and mini-moguls respected the sounds they released, creating brands of integrity-even if they never sold millions of records.