Those who have only a passing familiarity with Luaka Bop are likely to think of it as “David Byrne’s World Music Label.” While this may be useful as shorthand, it fails to tell the full story of an imprint which is focused on finding music that has no other natural home.
When I talked to Yale Evelev, David Byrne’s partner and President of Luaka Bop, he told me that ,“We never really thought of ourselves as a ‘world music’ label.”
“We’re a label that’s more about impurity in a way,” he says. “We want music that doesn’t quite fit in anywhere else. It’s not about tribalism. Or if it is, it’s about the kinds of tribes that could exist in New Jersey as well as in Peru.”
Luaka Bop was born in 1989. When David Byrne signed a contract with Warner Bros to release his Afro-Cuban and Brazilian-infused solo album Rei Momo, the creation of his own personal imprint was part of the deal.
Although Rei Momo became the first album to carry the Luaka Bop logo, “Brazil Classics 1” was the first record made specifically for the new label. It was the start of a successful series of compilations that evolved from Byrne and Evelev’s personal mixtapes, and went on to sell over 350,000 copies.
From there, the label diversified, releasing albums from the Brazilian psych-rock group Os Mutantes, Cuban guitarist Silvio Rodríguez, Peruvian songstress Susana Baca, Californian R&B singer Shuggie Otis, and the Indian-American rock group Cornershop.
Today, two of Luaka Bop’s most compelling new artists are Janka Nabay, a Sierra-Leonean musician whose style emerges from the centuries-old tradition of African “Bubu”; and Delicate Steve – who hails from New Jersey and plays in the decades-old tradition of “making incredibly weird and unclassifiable records at your mom’s house.”
If there’s a single thread that runs through all these artists’ work, it’s that each of them represents a hybridization of once-disparate musical forms. These aren’t musicians who have been plucked to stand in the wax museum of traditional ethnomusicology. These are dynamic, living performers caught between worlds and birthing entire new genres before our ears.
Once a personal imprint on a major label, Luaka Bop became wholly independent in 2006. And for the past 10 years, it’s been Yale Evelev who’s led the label as David Byrne tours the world, collaborates with Brian Eno, and designs surrealist bike racks for the New York City Deprtment of Transportation.
In the 1980s, Yale Evelev was working at a SoHo Music Gallery, one of the biggest independent retailers in New York in the days before Tower Records.
As the store’s buyer of world music, 20th century classical and jazz, he worked alongside musicians like John Zorn and sold albums to regular customers like David Byrne and Brian Eno. “We’d sell them these African and Brazilian records, but if you tried to talk to David, he’d run out the door,” Evelev remembers. “He’s still very shy.”
The run-ins didn’t end there. When Evelev went on to work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he booked Byrne on several occasions. He also moonlit as a producer and started his own label, called ICON, earning David Byrne as a fan.
In those ICON years, Evelev pressed all the albums that he could afford: One new release each year. His first was a recording of Indonesian music that sold 8,000 copies – a “huge success” for him at the time. That record would help fund all the other projects Evelev would produce, including The Big Gun Down, John Zorn’s tribute to the living, legendary Italian film composer, Ennio Morricone.
When I ask Evelev if ICON had a much different focus than Luaka Bop, he says that “ICON was a world music and contemporary classical label. Luaka Bop is a pop label. The music isn’t always American – or sung in English – but it was always designed to be a pop label.”
Janka Nabay and The Bubu Gang
Some of Luaka Bop’s artists have finally become stars in their own countries after being signed to the label, and sometimes it’s the other way around.
More than a decade ago, Janka Nabay created a national sensation in Sierra Leone by adapting and re-popularizing the region’s traditional “Bubu music” for a generation of Leoneans steeped in a new wave of local lo-fi techno. But when Nabay fled Sierra Leone in 2003 to escape the violent aftermath of its civil war, he went from national celebrity to near-anonymous African refugee, playing only occasionally to his peers in diaspora.
After years in exile, Nabay caught the notice of underground music fans in the U.S., appeared on the Afropop Worldwide radio program, and was eventually joined by a group of American musicians. These players, who came from experimental Brooklyn bands like Skeletons and Gang Gang Dance, were dubbed “The Bubu Gang.”
“We were aware of Janka,” says Evelev, “but we became really interested in him when he got together with Bubu Gang.”
“Since we’re not a traditional music label, that’s what finally made it a culmination of everything we want the music to be. These guys from Brooklyn and this singer from Africa coming together…They’re not making African music and they’re not making Brooklyn music, but they’re creating a completely new style.”
This, more than anything, is what Luaka Bop seems to be about: Not simple juxtaposition, but deep cross-pollination between musicians. Janka Nabay is an incessant booster of Bubu music, but when he talks about it, he’s not referring to a frozen version of traditional Bubu. He’s talking about his Bubu. The Bubu of the 21sth century, played on electric guitars and synthesizers with people from all over the world.
This dynamic is not new. In the long run, even genres come to seem more like conversations between cultures and their musicians. Evelev cites James Brown’s trips to Africa in the 1970s, in which Brown influenced the Africans almost as much as African music had influenced American pop for the past hundred years. To Evelev, it’s a conversation that has only become more rapid and more fluent with the advent of new tools like YouTube.
In one way, Luaka Bop is unlike a traditional world music label because it eschews traditional world music. But it’s also unlike a world music label because sometimes, they don’t even have to look much beyond the borders of the East River to find unique and expertly devised records that might otherwise be lost to the world.
Enter Steve Marion, aka Delicate Steve, a 23-year-old who made an odd, instrumental guitar pop masterpiece in his parents’ house in Fredon, NJ.
Knowing how difficult it would be to break an instrumental guitar band to a wider audience – especially one with such an unassuming background – Evelev secretly commissioned author and former Spin writer Chuck Klosterman to create a mock bio for the artist, sight unseen and sound unheard. This fictional parody of press releases was quoted (sometimes seriously) throughout the conventional musical press, despite being, you know, entirely untrue.
Fortunately, Delicate Steve doesn’t need much of a dramatic backstory to play music worth hearing. These are sounds that are accessible, challenging, and startlingly unique in a way that very little music is.