Does every creative use of another culture count as cultural appropriation? I mean, how can you tell, right? When does theft become art? At minimum, there are a few criteria: a deep respect for the material in question and the chops to pull it off convincingly, with a style and attitude all one’s own. That sets the bar high, and if you’re wondering who meets it, look no further than Talking Heads.
The band donned the rhythmic persona of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat for most of their 1980 album Remain in Light. The result was a record almost universally beloved by critics then and now, praised and covered live by Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo, Phish, and many others, and plundered for decades by indie dance rock bands looking to duplicate the record’s profoundly funky jangly New Wave.
It’s usually said that David Byrne first heard Fela Kuti in 1977, when Remain in Light producer Brian Eno played him the legendary Nigerian bandleader’s mesmerizing synthesis of jazz, funk, rock, high-life, and traditional polyrhythmic syncopation. Byrne doesn’t mention Eno’s role in his discovery of Fela’s music in a 1999 interview with Arthur’s Jay Babcock. He’s also a little cagey about the extent to which the album takes from the Afrobeat template. “There are some sections,” he says, in “The Great Curve,” that are “straight Afrobeat riffs and stuff.” The same could be said for almost every track on the album, such as opener “Born Under Punches” and big hit “Once in a Lifetime.”
Did the band have the chops to pull this off? Much of the praise surrounds the album’s studio construction, the meticulous, adventurous production by Eno, Byrne’s lyrical stream-of-consciousness, the band’s increasing level of contribution. They expanded to a nine-piece and created a generous space for improvisation. And when they went on stage in the resulting tour, they more than demonstrated they were up to the task of reinterpreting West African funk for a suite of American songs built on cut-up televangelism, the Watergate testimony of John Dean, slave narratives, and enough research to warrant a bibliography in the press release. Art school nerds, the band remained.
See them at the top play much of the material from Remain in Light, as well as from previous album Fear of Music (released 40 years ago today), where the experiments with African rhythms began, at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey in 1980, with an expanded lineup including King Crimson’s Adrian Belew. The experimental guitarist is in incredible form throughout the show, as is the entire band. Byrne was clearly enamored with Kuti’s original musical vocabulary. “The whole concept was different,” he tells Babcock, “the grooves were so great. The grooves are intense, trance-inducing,” and themselves the product of generous borrowing. Fela drew from the music of James Brown, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, from the Black Power movement, fusion, and psychedelic rock.
Talking Heads brought those transformed borrowings back to the U.S. and transformed them again into the kind of music only these musicians could make, born of deep appreciation and study, skill, and the willingness to freely expand their own idiom while still retaining their distinctive voices.