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, who studied with concrète giant Karlheinz Stockhausen, and imitated his use of shortwave samples on Canaxis 5 (1969), then combined that approach with his love of dub in 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 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?...

Stray thoughts: Given the U.S.-evangelism-versus-the-world subtext coded into the album's DNA, the title has acquired a double meaning in 2006. Also, I wonder how many people have ended up reading Amos Tutuola's novel as a side-effect of this record over the past 25 years.

bushofghosts_reish.jpg

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 03 at 10:53 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

COMMENTS

Dacks, thanks for the Wimoweh link. Glad to see the family getting some of the dough.

The Solomon Linda original, from 1939, is worth tracking down.

Posted by john on April 4, 2006 3:41 PM

 

 

Phil - you're so right to namecheck Chernoff, who Byrne worked with on the Catherine Wheel soundtrack; he's a huge influence on Byrne and the emerging "world music" sensibility at the time.

John - the whole Wimoweh issue is in the news again, Solomon Linda is getting payback, and this time it's personal:

http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c;=Article&cid;=1143114306195&call;_pageid=968332188492&col;=968793972154&t;=TS_Home

Finally, of the many precursors to this album, there is another pillar of "world music" and cultural sampling which predates MLBG by 4 years which bears a mention - Aksak Maboul, formed by the principals of what became Crammed Discs, here's some info:

http://www.crammed.be/crammed/cra00201.htm

It's interesting that the words "fake" and "tributes to" keep cropping up in the description of their music. This at least confronts and takes the piss out of accusations of appropriation. Not that these issues are ever solved. I'm with Mr. Zoilus, gimme the groove behind Regiment and my artistic morals get very loose.

Posted by dacks on April 4, 2006 10:43 AM

 

 

Carl,

Good point about non-ironic v. ironic intensity. Thinking about it, it's not always possible to tell what is ironic and what is not.

I have a different take on the exoticism of it. I hear the American examples as equally exotic -- usually southern and rural, if I remember correctly, and religious, as you point out. Not, to take an assimilated white middle-class urban example of audio intensity, a play-by-play radio sports announcer. (The Sonics' -- love that name, in context! -- play-by-play guy is an Artist! Kevin Calabro; I love him.) The exoticism is necessary; one would hear a horse race as strictly comical. And "Bush of Ghosts" is a great title (and kudos to B&E; for crediting Tutuola) -- it evokes the spiritual quality of the source materials, with, perhaps, a comment on the ghostliness of recording and broadcasting technologies. Also interesting in this "4th World" context is Jon Hassell's contention that "Bush of Ghosts" was his idea & that the 3 of them were going to make it together, and that B&E; swiped it and cut him out. Hassell's aesthetic is less irony-laden & more conventionally spiritual; maybe that's why they didn't want to do it with him.

I'm not trying to say, "You're wrong for liking this record"; just saying why I don't.

(Side topic -- Charlie Haden's sampling of historic recordings of Spanish Civil War songs on "Liberation Music Orchestra" is interesting -- he, like B&E;, runs the sample straight, but it's a brief moment in a huge free-jazz tapestry for a totally different effect; very beautiful.)


Phil, you're right -- the folkies stole songs too. But that don't make it right! The story of "Wimoweh"/"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is an amazing tale of exoticism & theft; Pete Seeger made untold thousands from the song, while the South African composer got nothing.

You're also right that the appropriators publicize the appropriated, and that's cool.

Posted by john on April 3, 2006 3:37 PM

 

 

Speaking of stealing, I recently had a friend rip two of the three discs in the Talking Heads retrospective specifically because I wanted to revisit tracks from Remain in Light, an album that I fell in love with around 1983 on a TDK SA-90 cassette that never left my walkman as I made my way around London, Ontario feeling appropriately cooler than everyone, and everything that I saw (I was 17 at the time)...anyhow...I ended up buying both the Sire LP and the My Life LP soon thereafter. It was wonderful hearing those sounds again earlier this year, not only to remind me that music of the world (culturally appropriated, or not) was making a major impact (I hadn't heard the Shocklee reference before) long before it was made fashionable first by Paul Simon and then Eno's peer Peter Gabriel through his Real World work...However, clearly the history of popular music, like any other, is written by those who publish it...which makes it seldom accurate and usually a belaboured point of contention.

The 1979 book African Rhythm and African Sensibility by John Miller Chernoff was a pillar of this movement toward a more worldly perspective on popular music forms in the eighties. Here is what Byrne himself notes about it. "One of the few books I know of that talks of the political, social, and spiritual meanings of music. I was moved. It was so nice I read it twice."

So before we start throwing around allegations like cultural appropriation, perhaps we should consider the context of said appropriation and then step back and ask ourselves whether the allegation is fair. In this context the term appropriation is loaded, to say the least.

Regardless of how I came about it, my music collection...and I am talking about the stuff I bought, not the stuff I ripped, is populated with a lot of sounds and musical references first informed by other more popular artists...

As far as I'm concerned, the path that cries cultural appropriation is one that is too often littered with lots of double standards and MUSAK. Didn't the Munroe Brothers appropriate lots in the early part of the last century when they recorded songs they'd picked up along the way from coal miners and migrant workers? Isn't it just that the technology is different now?

C'mon, it music and music is culture, which means it breeds any way it can and becomes something else in the process. That's the deal. Incidentally, that's what makes it so much fun. Each recording is the beginning of a potential journey of discovery.

Posted by Phil on April 3, 2006 3:17 PM

 

 

My artistic morals are looser than yours, John, but I respect your position. I do think there are abundant examples of laziness with this sort of style, but I don't hear Bush of Ghosts quite that way. You're right about the intensities, but I do hear the album as a critical examination of them, very much in the early-Reagan-era context, with the global sounds as counterpoints to the American ones, not mirroring but contrasting different cultural assemblaes, all of which feels kind of prescient, considering globalization and its discontents today. (Perhaps now it would be called My Life in the Ghost of Bush.) There's certainly an unselfconsciousness about the appropriation issue that would be, well, inappropriate now. But they're not being Gaughin/Picasso-esque exoticists either. The album could even be a marker of a particular point in the passage from a colonial approach to a consciously postcolonial one. So it's totally deserving of your critique - for the imaginariness of its Other (though it's an acknowledged imaginariness, via the whole Fourth World concept) - but I'm wary of simply trashing past art due to ideological changes between one era and another.

I also don't think non-ironic intensity is inherently preferable to an ironized intensity, and Byrne and Eno sure are (or were) capable of the latter, in many works besides this one.

Posted by zoilus on April 3, 2006 2:45 PM

 

 

While I like Byrne & Eno's Funkadelic-inspired grooves, I can't hear their style of sampling as anything other than cultural appropriation. I'm glad that people are telling them not to use their stuff. I'd rather hear the original tracks, without benefit of beats. Especially since B&E; tend to run the original tracks unaltered, unlike Steve Reich's equally tourist-y tape pieces "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out." Reich builds the source materials into new things, rather than just "tape-napping" a lead vocalist for a pre-existing band.

B&E;'s sampled vocals have an un-ironic intensity that the appropriators are incapable of themselves. Are B&E; critiquing, or are they envious? Or am I wrong to ask it as an either/or, or am I completely off? I hear them gaining the aesthetic benefit of somebody else's intensity without the spiritual sweat.

I'm not against sampling -- I've done it myself -- but the B&E; (and Moby) style of stealing a lead vocal straight up and adding a beat rings me wrong.

Posted by john on April 3, 2006 2:16 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson