Not Their Life


I didn’t like* David Byrne’s and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts when I first heard it. I remember being discomfited by* the implied condescension of the samples, which I assumed was implicit in their choice of American radio preachers, and which I felt extended by implication to the “world music” vocalists they pirated. The condescension was confirmed when Eno referred to the contrast between his and Byrne’s “futurism” and their pirated vocalists’ “primitivism.” How arrogant, how stupid.

I was also depressed by Byrne & Eno’s attraction to other people’s passionate utterance, and the implication that the producers, the pirates, the guys with their names above the title — they, in their purported sophistication, were incapable of producing such passionate utterance with their own lungs. As a punk rock and free jazz devotee (among other musical allegiances), and as an aspiring, perspiring musician myself, I was passionately in pursuit of the passionate utterance. The singers Byrne and Eno pirated sounded great. But the new context — no.

I haven’t read Amos Tutuola’s novel, which Byrne & Eno quoted for their title. I heard it’s good. Maybe some day.

Next day second thoughts below . . .

I originally wrote “hated” in the first sentences, where it now says “didn’t like*” and “remember being discomfited by*.” A friend’s note made me reassess, and I have to admit that I don’t remember. I don’t even remember when I first heard it. I’m quite certain I didn’t like it, though I probably tried to.

My friend questioned how I could have had any context for my distaste, claiming that “recordings of African music were as rare as hens’ teeth, and Eno and Byrne did a lot to promote interest in it.” But I’d already heard Olatunji’s 1959 Columbia Records release Drums of Passion before I heard the Byrne and Eno album, and I loved it; I loved Don Cherry, and his 1969 album Eternal Rhythm, which I owned and loved, included gamelan percussion; my parents had a Ravi Shankar album, which I really liked a lot too. So non-Western sounds were in my ears; that wasn’t the problem. I probably wouldn’t have used the word “pirate” at the time — maybe “rip off,” and an anti-colonialist critique wouldn’t have occurred to me then either, though I don’t believe my post argues against Byrne and Eno’s work in quite those terms. I would have felt Byrne & Eno’s condescension toward the US radio preachers more than toward the North African singers whose recordings they recontextualized, but the juxtaposition troubled me; and I distinctly remember being put off by their attraction to the vocals that exceeded the parameters of standard Western music-making in ways that signified as “passionate,” not because I didn’t share the attraction, but for reasons stated above.

Memory is unreliable. I don’t like this album, though, and I never did.

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