by carl wilson

Byrne & Eno's Danish Cartoon?


My Life in the Bush of Ghosts on vinyl: The new reissue is at once enhanced and, for surprising reasons, incomplete.

Like Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee, I was one of those kids whose mind was squeegeed by the sonic collages of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in the eighties, when samples and loops were still a startling sound. And now it's reappearing at a time when samples and loops are like toast and jam, in a deluxe Nonesuch edition for its 25th anniversary. (It was released in 1981 - I caught up with it several years later, because of age and because that's the way it was in Brantford back then: Decades tended to arrive about five years late.)

For those unfamiliar with it, it was a work of imaginative "fourth world" anthro-tapeology, maybe comparable to today's Sublime Frequencies found-global-sound compilations, but set to Remain in Light-stylee grooves. It's sometimes referred to as the first sampling record, but that's a myth:

[ ... more on the album and the removed track Qu'ran, on the jump ... ]

Better to see it as a descendent of the tape-spliced samples of musique concrète going back to the early postwar era, an aesthetic imported to pop by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the White Album's Revolution No. 9 and followed by many others. Then of course there's the vinyl-based sampling of Jamaican dub and early hip-hop. My Life's historical claim might be better staked on being among the first to bring those two streams together - along with Holger Czukay of Can/PiL fame, who had studied with concrète giant Karlheinz Stockhausen and imitated his use of shortwave samples on Canaxis 5 in the late sixties, then combined that approach with his love of dub his solo Eighties stuff.

Bush of Ghosts been aped since then on a thousand industrial-techno and worldbeat-with-monks tracks, but it still sounds fresher and more bloodyminded than its imitators. It uses the found voices mostly as an occasion for a twitchy, paranoid relationship to intercultural experience, rather than the sneering-angry template of industrial or the swoony-tourist model of worldbeat -credible perhaps to Byrne's and Eno's shared capacity to fix a quizzical alien eye not only on foreign others but upon their "own" cultures. Not that it's immune to some of the same critiques of cultural appropriation and decontextualization, but it makes a damn strong case for the practice.

Given this bloodymindedness, I was surprised to find out this weekend on the fine Ten Thousand Things blog that one of my favourite tracks on the album, Qu'ran, has been omitted from most of the CD re-releases of the album, including the new Nonesuch. The problem was its use of taped samples of scriptural chanting from mosque services, which drew complaints from official Islamic groups. Since the early reissues came out around the time of the Satanic Verses fatwa, the label or Byrne and Eno themselves - it's unclear - chose to avoid the risk of getting Rushdied. Ten Thousand Things lets you download the original here. There are two odd things about this case: First, the kind of Quranic chanting that's on the track is, as far as I understand, broadly acceptable listening material for faithful Muslims, outside the most extreme sects - it's not remotely blasphemous on the level of Rushdie's parody or the infamous Danish editorial cartoons. The accompanying music is quite demure by the album's own standards. It's those standards that might be the sticking point: Far more implicitly critical are the album's treatments of Christian radio preachers and even a demon exorcism, similar in effect to the use of preacher samples on Remain in Light's famous Once in a Lifetime. (The better-known legal issue around My Life have to do with the evangelical preacher Kathryn Kulman, whose estate demanded the removal of her sermon from the exorcism track The Jezebel Spirit - it forced the delay of the album replaced with another radio evangelist, and the original has surfaced only on a rare Italian bootleg. Eno has said the delay was ultimately fortuitous, as they made Remain in Light with the Talking Heads in the interim, an experience that informed the final reworked version.) In other words, then, there's an equal-opportunity scepticism toward religion that pervades the record, far less blinkered and ethnocentric than, say, the Danish cartoons. Given the centrality of these issues today, it's at once understandable and unfortunate that the added tracks on the reissue don't include the restoration of the original, quite respectful-sounding Qu'ran. (I'd be interested to hear counterarguments though.)

There is good legal news about the album, though, which is (as Boing Boing reported last week that Byrne & Eno have placed two of the tracks under a Creative Commons license and are allowing others to download and remix the components of those songs. (In a similar spirit the reissue cover is a kind of remix of the distinctive Peter Saville original.) Perhaps this presents opportunities for inventive mischief as commentary on the Qu'ran question?...

Wonder how many copies of Amos Tutuola's novel this album has sold indirectly in the past 25 years.

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Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 03 at 10:53 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson