Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tricky Beats: Polyrhythm, Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I discussed the polyrhythmic music of the Yoruba people of west Africa. Here, I will reveal what led me to seek out that music in the first place.

By 1980, I was sold on the music of Talking Heads. Three albums into their career, they had shown me enough that I wanted to know what was going to happen next. And at that point, the band seemingly broke up. Officially, they were on hiatus, with the promise to return, but we’ve all heard that before. So, I was nervous.

The band broke into three parts at that point. I dutifully bought the Tom Tom Club album. I sought out Jerry Harrison’s solo album. And I enjoyed them thoroughly. But nothing prepared me for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by David Byrne and Brian Eno.

David Byrne/ Brian Eno: Help Me Somebody


Well, not quite nothing. I did read about the making of the album in the New York Times, and in Musician magazine. And, in those sources, I heard the term polyrhthm for the first time. I learned that Byrne and Eno had been listening to African music, and had become inspired by it. I have shared with you some of what they were listening to.

For My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne and Eno created instrumental tracks inspired by the polyrhthms of African music. For vocals, they used found sounds, which in the case of “Help Me Somebody”, was a preacher recorded off the radio.

Talking Heads: The Great Curve


In 1981, I breathed a sigh of relief. Talking Heads were getting back together. Byrne and Eno brought the results of there musical explorations back to the band, and the result was Remain in Light.

To my ears, Remain in Light represents polyrhythmic music taken to its ultimate level. The song I have chosen perfectly illustrates this. King Sunny Ade took the job of some of the drums, and gave it to guitars, keyboards, and slide guitar. “The Great Curve” further spreads the rhythms to the horns, and to three overlapping vocal parts. Amazingly, despite the complexity of this music, Talking Heads did have a charting single off this album with “Once in a Lifetime”. Such was the power of music video and MTV at the time.

So, from something in part 1 of this post that I would imagine was unfamiliar to many readers, we have come to something I would imagine many of you have heard before. I hope you can hear it now with new ears. And thank you all for listening.

My personal journey into the music of Africa began a longer exploration of world music which continues to this day. If anyone else would like to pursue this further, I have provided some resources below to help you on your way.

- By far the best magazine I have found is Songlines. Each issue comes with a sampler cd of new world music releases. Songlines is published in England, and unfortunately, the exchange rates have driven up the price lately, but it’s well worth it if you can afford it.

- Afropop Worldwide is an invaluable online resource for all things pertaining to African music.

- Luaka Bop is the world music label founded by David Byrne after the breakup of Talking Heads.

- The other “pop“ musician who founded his own world music label is Peter Gabriel, with Real World Records.

And finally, a pair of blogs to check out:

- Benn loxox du taccu is Matt Yanchyshyn's
world music blog. It hasn’t been updated since he announced his engagement on Sept. 27, but the older links are still working as of this writing.

- Awesome Tapes from Africa is just what it sounds like. The sound quality varies, and not all of the music is great, but this music is not available otherwise, and the good stuff makes it worth it.

So that’s it for now. Enjoy your journey!

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