From Talking Heads to the New Latin Wave
When New Wave music in America detached itself from punk rock in the 70s, there were many who started to label it. At the time it was bands like Blondie, The Cars and The B-52´s who started something that was defined by the attitude and style of a generation rather than by music itself. Journalists who took an older approach, then on the increase, sighed in relief as the situation recovered. Though it was after a minor bump and decades of stability in that direction that it happened. Even today the industry is lost on a global scale (unconsciously, for the most part). Nowadays we only use a music marketing ‘compass’ to guide us, looking for immediate returns like in the old days.
However one of the main figures of that era, arguably the most brilliant and lucid minds of that time, had anticipated what was going to happen 20 years down the line. Something was bound to happen. It was the realisation that there was no need for labelling. The problem was that no one made accurate readings. However, David Byrne, the life and soul of Talking Heads achieved this in 1989 with one album: Rei Momo.
Mr Byrne is incomparable, you could even say that he’s a genius. Not many have artistically survived for as long as he has. And even though there have been attempts, no one has known how to follow his footsteps. No one, except for the new generation of Hispanic musicians, called out to renew the music scene as influential figures.
Byrne released this collection of afro-Caribbean songs in 89′ with the voice and intensity that launched Talking Headsinto a cult band. Even though he wasn’t the first, there was no turning point. He had support from Herb Alpert and his band The Tijuana Brass among others. But even as an international pop-rock star treading a new path for the rest to follow, it wasn’t made the most out of by the Latin community at the time.
In fact the album ended up becoming a problem for the disenchanted promoters, fans, marketeers and bookers who didn’t know what to do with this marvellous piece of work. As a response, they were forced to find it a home, placing it into World Music. This was a term that terrified the artist. It didn’t fit in the renowned quotations that were common place to promote Talking Heads. Though his status wouldn’t allow him to do it any other way. Rei Momo was toured and it gained its own momentum, mainly to the rumours surrounding the infamous Byrne. Even so, there was no recognition until years later. Perhaps those in charge of defending the product reached the point of accepting its sell by date. It’s logical if they don’t know how -or they don’t want to-, treat it more than a disposable product.
Nonetheless, it’s a misunderstood masterpiece which still remains current. It didn’t belong in its time. This is when Byrnemanifested the imminent fusion between the artistic borders of US and Latin America, he marked the path towards globalisation for future generations. Shortly after came the golden years for Juan Luis Guerra, but it’s clear that there is no match. When this album was made, Byrne was inspired by what was Latin at that time. It wasn’t the Hispanic concept of our time which has become dignifying.
Even today there is no trace or information about this album on the internet. However it’s mentioned frequently and music legends such as Celia Cruz collaborated on it. For the younger ones to understand, the album is nowhere to be found on the British catalogue of Spotify (the second largest music market of the world), and the Rei Momo Tour is just a mirage on Google. It’s like they wanted to forget the rock stars’ whimsical experiment.
It’s interesting that such a complex album as My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, released by Byrne alongside Brian Eno in 1981, would be clearly recognised by the Hip Hop community as an album that pioneered the genre. It was mainly sought after for its avant garde use of rhythms and samplers. Though for some reason no one wants to capitalize on Rei Momo’s heritage. Perhaps because Latin music is on the verge of expanding and its roots have not been explored yet. The key is not to perceive Byrne’s album as the birth of something new. But rather as the first Anglo-Saxon avant garde approach towards a style of music which until then, was kept within a minority of people.
Who will continue the path set out by Rei Momo? The answer lies with current musicians, born in the golden decade of the 80s and 90s. A generation from Europe and the American continent who put aside their complexes and recognised their Latin roots. They also have an interest in blending these sounds with recent trends, keeping away from the stereotypes and reclaiming Latin as a noble way of working into the future. This is where this album acts as an open door, inevitably turning itself into an important milestone.
Frikstailers, Gizmo Varillas, Ibeyi, Le Parody, Buscabulla, Ondatrópica, Arca, Rodrigo Amarante or El Guincho (just to say a few). These musicians have learned the lesson naturally, with no need of fusion. If David Byrne’s band at the time would have been formed today it would be called 424, Ondatrópica or Dengue Dengue Dengue!. In fact we’re at a time where it’s now the Anglo-Saxon forefront which moves towards the Spanish speaking communities. This is happening with artists such as Quantic, Vampire Weekend, My Panda Shall Fly, Animal Collective and Devendra Barnhart, or even the always classy, influent and powerful -theoretically far away of the Spanish Speaking communities, Royal Opera House with its new La Havana inspired programme Cubanía. Also, other private companies such as XLR8R, Converse, Pitchfork, Young California, Gorilla Vs. Bear, Boiler Room, or different synergies from governmental institutions across America, Asia and Europe.
New music created or interpreted by these artists is no longer aesthetically Latin but Dark and Tropical — always a punch in the nose, and it is evolved far from the well known tag. Yet they still proudly show their Latin side, as well as their native Spanish language. Social and political events in United States often omit the term Latin and replace it for its counterpart ‘Hispanic’, merging the past and future. Though looking into new Horizons it’s fair to call this ‘New Latin Wave’. This is about disassociating everything that was once made public, to what is being made today. Importantly, with a large emphasis on taking care of the music scene.
New Latin Wave goes beyond labels like Latin Alternative aka Latino Alternativo which only identify the commercial side of the traditional latin cliché. Instead, it recognises a changing global scene that acknowledges these artists as part of a new socio-cultural shift occurring in the Hispanic community.
It’s necessary that music journalists, at least those to come, must learn to listen, look and prescribe again. In this era, nothing will be the same again.
David Byrne, the New Latin Wave pioneer?