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Brian Eno and David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—25th Anniversary Edition

Brian Eno and David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—25th Anniversary Edition

Release Date:2006

By Jess Harvell | Posted 5/17/2006

In 1979, Brian Eno and David Byrne holed up in a studio to make an album inspired by African drumming, American funk, Middle Eastern folk music, and the crackpot preachers of America’s late-night airwaves. They named it My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, after a book by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola in which a runaway slave flees into the spectral African bush. One of the preachers the two sieved off the radio, Kathryn Kuhlman, objected, and the resulting legal wrangles put the project on ice. Eno and Byrne’s Talking Heads instead recorded 1980’s Remain in Light, in which the band’s urban alienation infected a slightly nostalgic Africa.

The twitching dread of modernity, the perceived innocence of folk culture, and the fucked-up interzone between the two that the 20th century had created—that was the tension that egghead white dudes Byrne and Eno wanted to exploit on Bush of Ghosts. Finally released in 1981, with a new preacher replacing Kuhlman on “The Jezebel Spirit,” the album’s mix of liquid grooves and disembodied voices left many listeners baffled. But over time it became a totem for the cut-and-paste generation that sprang up in the wake of the digital sampler.

But the methods of Bush of Ghost’s construction are less interesting 25 years down a line of technological innovation; the music is all that matters, and that sounds bang up to date in a world where globalization has meant a depressing homogeneity and a bizarre hybrid culture all at once. Bush of Ghosts is music of unrest and discomfort, but also beauty. The samples (resonant, earthy) feel like they’re trying to find a way to cohabit with the (glossy, denaturalized) music. The effect is often like listening to two overlapping radio stations on a cross-country—cross-continent?—drive.

At the time the album was made, the world-music industry was still in its infancy, and so it’s hard now not to hear all the international hybrids the West has been exposed to in the last two decades: synthesizers in South African jive, the soupy electronics of Algerian rai, right up to the Congolese noise of Konono No. 1. But it’s the religious broadcasts and conspiracy-theory nuts—Americans plucked from talk radio’s fringe—that keep Bush of Ghosts from uncomfortably reveling in the merely exotic. Byrne made a career in Talking Heads out of feeling alienated from his own country, and tracks like “America Is Waiting” seem to say that a common language is no guarantee of not being an outsider.

Ironically, a new legal issue has made this 25th-anniversary edition, with seven unreleased tracks from the original sessions, of Bush of Ghosts incomplete in a new way. Muslim groups complained that the use of holy chanting on the track “Qu’ran” was sacrilegious, so it’s been excised entirely. Of course, there’s nothing more or less sacrilegious about Eno and Byrne’s sampling Islamic scripture than jackleg Christian preaching. The suspicion with which they viewed the ways the 20th century had altered the meaning of religion extended to all. And it’s this suspicion that gives Bush of Ghosts the itchy friction by which it transcends ethnic tourism.

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