Luaka Bop

David Byrne

Luaka Bop is a world music-oriented record label established by David Byrne, former guitarist, singer-songwriter and producer of the art rock-new wave band Talking Heads. It has been a wholly independent label since leaving Universal Music Group’s V2 in 2006. Luaka Bop has been responsible for compilations representing sounds from around the world as well as the release of full length albums, EPs, and singles from individual artists and bands.

‘Brazil Classics’ kicked off the label and a set of seven albums surveying eras and artists ranging from Samba to Tropicália. Ventures into Afro-Peruvian and AfroPean musics unearthed the talents of Susana Baca and Zap Mama, respectively. ‘World Psychedelic Classics’ is made up of three albums and includes artists such as Shuggie Otis, Os Mutantes, as well as West African artists of the late 1960s. Additionally, the label has released ‘Cuba’ and ‘Asia Classics.’

Byrne took the phrase ‘Luaka Bop’ for his record label from the inner packaging of a specialty tea which is sold in England. Luaka is the name of a tea importer. Luaka’s ‘Broken Orange Pekoe’ is packaged in a silver foil block; when the sleeve is removed, it reveals a white label stuck to the foil, reading ‘Luaka BOP.’

One of the ways in which Luaka Bop has established the identity of their unclassifiable pop is through the design of album covers. Working with renowned designers such as Tibor Kalman, Stefan Sagmeister, Scott Stowell, and Stephen Doyle, the projects are based in a visual language familiar and exciting to the contemporary eye, instead of settling on staid ideas of the non-American music released. David Byrne comments, ‘We don’t do covers that look like folkloric records or like academic records of obscure material of interest only to musicologists and a few weird fringe types… we work with the designers to come up with a graphic statement that says ‘this music is relevant to your life.” Tibor Kalman’s M&Co. was the first to begin this execution; he designed the first and second ‘Brazil Classics,’ ‘To Scratch That Itch,’ and also began the tradition of the mutable split-colored spine, which would be altered with every change in distribution.

During the Warner Brothers era, Stefan Sagmeister designed the first Luaka Bop poster of a pearl floating in space, inscribed with ‘The World Is Our Oyster’ and also designed ‘Adventures in Afropea 3: Telling Stories To The Sea,’ using the drill to mark promo CDs as the basis for the insert, with every page’s separate image revolving around the small hole in the middle. Most recently, cartoonist Paul Hornschmeier illustrated Luaka Bop’s history for the 20th anniversary release, along with Yonlu’s ‘A Society In Which No Tear Is Shed Is Inconceivably Mediocre.’ When faced with the problem of photographing Kings Go Forth, an 11-piece group, KGF’s Andy Noble suggested outsider artist Mingering Mike. After spending a lifetime creating faux-album covers, he finally agreed to lend his hand to an actual release, 2010’s ‘The Outsiders Are Back.’ Mike’s original drawing included 5 band members and was reworked to include 11 with the aid of designer and artist Paul Diddy.

The Luaka Bop logo design was conceived by David Byrne and realized by Tibor Kalman. On Luaka Bop’s all-seeing thorn-encroached heart, David Byrne states: ‘Many times I have been asked about the symbolism of the Luaka Bop logo. It has been described variously as a leaf, a spade and a heart. None of these are strictly correct. The logo, whose use is granted through an agreement that is subject to certain conditions, is a rather obscure Masonic symbol linked at various times to the Trinity of the Illuminati and to the Egyptian Knights of Templar. The Knights were guardians of the secrets of harmony. Hence the obvious and appropriate connection to music. But their concept of harmony was much greater and ranging than our own- not only encompassing the harmony of the spheres, of the heavens, but the harmony of inner fluids and dynamic forces- and in the case of the Egyptian Knights these were ruled by the dead. The Knights believed that the dead are the custodians of the present day, and that no harmony can be true and lasting without their assistance. The eye of the Luaka Bop logo is the eye of Vilaç Trimegistes, the Balkan alchemist who gave his eyes to his work, and who was the first to uncover the secrets of the Egyptian Knights. The shape and proportion of the Eye of Vilaç is in a mathematical relationship to the vessel, or ‘heart.’ The heart being considered a vessel not only for the blood, but for the dead. The rays, ‘thorns’ or nails that line and protect the vessel were incorporated during the middle ages, an addition that was deemed necessary in lieu of the then power of the Papacy. Today, the symbol exists as a vessel for music, text and image, through which its members communicate to the population at large, Alan Greenspan and occasionally Jacques Chirac.’

Label artists include Byrne, Tom Zé, Cornershop, Los Amigos Invisibles, Os Mutantes, Shuggie Otis, Javelin, and Delicate Steve.

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