David Byrne, Rock Master of Multicultural Sound: The Rolling Stone Interview

The talking egghead discusses art and Africa, rock and religion, and bares his metaphysical soul

April 21, 1988
david byrne rolling stone cover 1988
David Byrne on the cover of Rolling Stone.

In 1980 a reporter for a Los Angeles newspaper called to tell me that Talking Heads had mentioned my book African Art in Motion in the press kit for their album Remain in Light. She wanted to know my reaction. Since I had already been tuned in to the Heads' innovative takes on rock music, I told her I was intrigued. And I was. I began to track the group's music more closely. I was especially impressed by the Afro-Atlantic excursions – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (with Brian Eno) and The Catherine Wheel – by the band's singer and chief songwriter, David Byrne.

In the spring of 1987, I met Byrne for the first time. Jonathan Demme, who had directed Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads' concert film, invited us both to dinner at a café on Manhattan's Upper West Side. David came dressed immaculately in white, appropriately evoking the image of an American initiate into the Yoruba religion. Throughout that first conversation, Demme and I did most of the talking: we were waxing poetic about Haitian vodun (vodun, not voodoo, is the respectful way to refer to this much-maligned African-rooted religion). But I could see that David genuinely dug Haiti and her arts.

The 100 Best Albums of the Eighties: Talking Heads, 'Remain in Light'

Several weeks later, I invited him to accompany me to a Haitian vodun initiation ceremony. It was a canzo, a ceremony in which two blacks and two whites (one was an administrative assistant for a major magazine) would pass the fire test, holding their hands briefly in a scalding-hot mixture without feeling anything, as proof of self-control and oneness with the spirit. The successful completion of the canzo would be celebrated with dancing and spirit possessions.

The dancing was scheduled for five in the afternoon in a basement hounfor ("shrine") in the Morrisania area of the Bronx, not far from the George Washington Bridge. We arrived on time, but the ceremony didn't get under way until nearly four hours later. David passed this impromptu initiation test. Instead of stirring restlessly or pointedly glancing at his wristwatch, he simply plunked himself down in a chair and watched a television that someone had left on. Around nine, the drummers finally came and set up, and the rhythms for the gods resounded. Several women and one man became possessed by the gods and goddesses of ancient Dahomey, in Africa. Ghede, one of the most powerful deities, came down in the flesh of a woman and – wham! – fell right into David's lap before lunging ecstatically to the altar. David hardly blinked an eye. It was as if the intense non sequiturs of his songwriting – not to mention the unpredictability of rock stardom – had prepared him well for this kind of experience.

Album Reviews: Talking Heads, 'Stop Making Sense'

Other outings with David in Afro-Latin New York have confirmed, for me, that he has an abiding connection with the arts of the black Atlantic world. At a New York jazz club called Carlos I, for example, I've seen David in the audience, righteously rocking along with Ayizan, a New York Haitian band that plays the one-note bamboo trumpets of Haiti over rock and jazz. I've also realized from these encounters that David is always "on." He knows how to dress, move, sit, gaze – how to augment, with gesture and attitude, any given creative context. I would guess that when he switched from studying art to performing music, he carried the insights of line, form and color to the world of grooves and silences. But also, wherever he is, whatever he is doing, he is on in the ethnographic sense of being a participant-observer.

One night at S.O.B.'s, the New York nightclub specializing in African, Brazilian and Caribbean black music, Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa, invited David onstage to play guitar for her. It was, of course, an exciting minievent for the performers and the audience. But David Byrne, the musician-ethnographer, was also there, and he was on. That night he met Angel Fernandez, Cruz's trumpet player, and commissioned his talents as an arranger. Consequently, "Mr. Jones," a brilliant cut on the new Talking Heads album, Naked, swings with the kind of classic horn lines made famous by the Cuban mambo king Perez Prado; it cleverly complements the Afro-Cuban sounds and rhythms that percolate throughout the rest of the record.

I've also learned that David's love affair with these cultures is not only sincere, it's pervasive. The conversations from which this interview is taken would usually start at a New York restaurant and wind up at Byrne's home, a loft in SoHo, where he lives with his wife, Adelle Lutz, a Eurasian designer. The loft's outside corridor is guarded by two drapeaux de vodun ("vodun flags"), which salute the deities Bossu and Erzulie. In the living room, the sofa is draped with a multicolored Akan kente cloth. To the side of a state-of-the-art television is a table set with several miniature wedding couples frozen in a dance of love over a bogolanfini cloth from western Africa. There is also a wooden Nimba statue, a striking feminine image from the Baga people of Guinea, and an amazing fusion sculpture – with David doing the fusing – made of a cake studded with red power figures purchased in a botánica, a Yoruba-American herbal store. Of course, not all of the accents are African or Afro-American. The bedroom area, with its translucent sliding walls, is Japanesque. And although Byrne has very hip, up-to-date catalogs of African, Afro-Brazilian and North American visionary art on his coffee table, his current john literature is an important work on film theory by Jay Leyda.

So one could say that David Byrne is nowadays as much ethnographer as he is rock artist. All of these interests propel him more and more into the making of film. (The vodun sequence in his first film effort, True Stories, foreshadows his next big project, a film on the Yoruba religion in Brazil.) All his imperatives seem to be blurring, one into the other, and probably just in time. The continuing upsurge of black-based popular musics – such as reggae, compas direct, mambo, merengue, cadence, zydeco – which is being reinforced by hyper-tech, means that we are going into a new era. Put it this way: I think David Byrne points the way to the future, when rock masters will be noted for extraordinary acquisitions of multiple cultures in sound. Those who deny the trend probably don't know a computer sample from the proverbial hole in the ground.

"Mr. Jones," on Naked, is a kind of declaration of independence for all these tendencies and more. It's an answer back to Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," which has the immortal lines about Mr. Jones. That song made a fetish of being snobbish toward out-of-it elders and beer-drinking, football-loving America. Now Byrne is saying that Mr. Jones is back, and he's okay. Which is good news for us "office buffaloes" (one friend's term for the straight and gainfully employed) who love reggae and soucous and salsa as much as we love rock.

Let those who never thought culture stopped at the Hudson, who never thought it was only happening in English, cast the first stone at David Byrne and mock his work as patronizing. They're missing the point. There is something happening out there, and it's Señor Jones (Willie Colón, Ray Barretto, Roberto Roena), Señora Jones (Celia Cruz) and, in Portuguese, Senhora Jones (Denise Delapenha, Gal Costa, Alcione). It's also Monsieur Jones and his Haitian colleagues (Ayizan, Troupe Makandal, Coupé Cloué), who will one day be to New York what the Mississippi Delta bluesmen were to Chicago. The showdown music for the showdown decade of the 1990s is already here. And David Byrne not only hears it, he makes it. He's keeping up with the Joneses – the right ones.

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