Joint Recordings of July 1990: Rei Momo, O Samba

Luaka Bop/Sire/Warner Bros. 25990-1 (LP), -2 (CD). Steve Lillywhite, D. Byrne, prods.; Jon Fausty, eng. ADD. TT: 63:43
VARIOUS/DAVID BYRNE: O Samba (Brazil Classics 2)
Luaka Bop/Sire/Warner Bros. 26019-1 (LP), -2 (CD). Todo Mundo, prods. ADD. TT: 50:25

Kind of like "MacGyver," someday there's going to be a TV show called "David Byrne: Musicologist." Or he'll pop up hosting one of those earnest kids' shows on PBS—"Can you say 'gamelan'?" Modern-day Raiders of the Lost Chord like Byrne, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, and Paul Simon are hell-bent on global pillage—not so much in the spirit of folkways preservationists Alan Lomax or Cecil Sharpe as in the spirit of plunder. These guys make money on the records that result; the unwitting inspirations, or in some cases the hired help, usually don't make much.

You can argue that without such exposure dance clubs of the world would be limited to four-bar, Youssou N'Dour would not have toured the US, and contemporary American musical culture would remain bounded by the Velvet Underground on the left and the Go-Gos on the right (looking south). Fair enough, but with fine indigenous artists like John Hiatt and Dr. John going wanting for audiences and marketing support, current trendsetting has plainly fallen victim to the "grass is greener" syndrome. Other People's Cultures have always served as fertile ground for novelty, an oh-so-easy sell to the music fashion trade, plus the added benefit of one-time production costs or royalties, and the artistic hubris (or rationalization) that one is bringing one's own contribution to the stew. Crossover jazz sells too, but is it art?

When the recently deceased Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring's sprayed squiggles started showing up on Swatch watches instead of on the sides of New York buildings is about when their spontaneous, giddy heartbursts stopped being art and started being a job. Consider, too, the time-honored issue of fine vs decorative art; that is, getting a job. The avant-garde in particular, an area where Byrne claims to hang his hat, is pretty fierce about such things (witness French surrealist André Breton and pals picketing the Maldorer, a smart-set café which appropriated the name of an artistic manifesto). Furthermore, most of today's musical samplers, scavengers, and magpies are earning a living rather than pushing a limit, and the limit itself (the transmogrification of found objects into an original construction, if you will) is pretty old hat. Wailing on some other person's image was the central tenet of the Dada movement and, at the time, it was an original idea as unsettling as a Mapplethorpe exhibit. Now you have to crawl as far out on the limb and outside the system as UK duo Art in Ruins, which constructs one-time-only installations, or rapper Dr. Griff's screwy, poisoned vision, to set art's basic question: If it doesn't provoke you, how will you grow?

Like a Hollywood studio on location, the likes of Byrne, Gabriel, and Simon trek off to foreign parts replete with Vuitton duffels, clean underwear, credit cards, and a tax guide to writing off research. And with the skilled technician's eye for the hottest spot since Paul Simon turned Bolivia's "El Condor Pasa" into the prototype for "Don't Worry, Be Happy," our David recently swung down to Rio. (Simon's South American album should be out by the time you read this.)

Byrne deserves one high mark for giving us some of it straight: his two "Brazil Classics" compilation albums feature original artists with original material. O Samba is a collection of—what else?—sambas and pagodes. (The first—Beleza Tropical—is a rather lighter-weight bag of jazz-pop: mango soufflé.) O Samba's strength is its weakness: as a "sampler" album, each track is really an hors d'oeuvre, but the peppy overview and immersion in surprisingly muscular, syncopated rhythms is truly something rich and strange. Topics veer dizzily from sex to religious cults to roots; this material is creatively culled from musicians who got tired of "Girl from Ipanema" export fodder and turned back to a more original po' folks street-party style. Like a down-home blues band playing late-night live, O Samba is livelier, noisier, and more "real" than stylings you ordinarily hear.

Rei Momo, on the other hand, packages the standard Byrne themes (What is love? What is truth? What is style?) into 15 chipper, Santa Barbara Salsa–flavor servings, helpfully labeled according to mode (meringue, for instance, pagode, bolero, cumbia, and, God help us, cha cha cha). Thank God, too, he finished his homework and discovered it was a craze made up by two Frenchmen or there'd be a lambada somewhere between the Bomba/Mozambique ("The Rose Tattoo") and the mapeye ("Carnival Eyes").

This is the same rueful irony, the intellectualized investigations into fate, reality, the war between men and women, and skirmishes with the Art Police that Byrne's been toying with since More Songs about Buildings and Food. Here they're just set to the swingy rhythms he's been interested in since Little Creatures (compare and contrast). Can't David ever have any stupid fun? A village wants to dance "Caxambu" on O Samba, and he wants his girlfriend to tell him fibs ("Lie to Me," a mapeye). Even the promisingly titled samba "Loco de Amor" reveals Dave as the Woody Allen of New Music, mooning in a high-tone style over dames as appealing as a "pizza in the rain" ("no one else wants to take you home. My wild thing.").

Well, don't argue with Teach if you want the grade. This excursion is pretty Art School Academic, and ironically, the only cut that isn't tagged as written in some other culture's style is a hymn to self-examination. "I Know Sometimes a Man is Wrong" sounds as though he means it.

The execution on all three albums is flawless, but stick with the compilations. Delightful and classily performed froufrou no more demanding than a film by Fred and Ginger, they're hot and cool and breezy, perfect for summer nights, wannabee-modish soirées, and clubs which cater either to those from sunnier climes or folks who can really dance. Byrne's album sounds like a Berklee School of Music exercise in composition.—Beth Jacques