American Utopia, David Byrne’s jukebox musical with a message, is on Broadway at the St James Theatre through March 6, 2022. From $59. americanutopiabroadway.com 🇧🇷🇨🇦🇨🇴🇫🇷🏴🇵🇷🇺🇸
It’s really cool when someone from one culture understands another culture so well that they live it and actually add to it. That’s David Byrne and Company. The show stars:
- David Byrne, guitar and vocals 🏴 @davidbyrneofficial
- Jacquelene Acevedo, percussionist 🇨🇴🇨🇦 @jacquelene_drums Flor Toloache
- Gustavo Di Dalva, percussionist 🇧🇷
- Daniel Freedman, percussionist 🇺🇸
- Chris Giarmo, vocals, dance and vocal captain 🇺🇸 chrisgiarmo.com
- Tim Keiper, percussionist 🇺🇸
- Tendayi Kuumba, vocals 🇺🇸
- Karl Mansfield, keyboard and music director 🇺🇸
- Mauro Refosco, percussionist and music director 🇧🇷 Forro in the Dark
- Stéphane San Juan, percussionist 🇪🇸🇫🇷
- Angie Swan, guitar 🇺🇸 @TheAngieSwan
- Bobby Wooten III, bass 🇵🇷
Annie-B Parson did the choreography and musical staging.
Check out the Build the Beat interactive game on the show’s web. It lets you isolate musical parts and make your own arrangement. That’s kind of the story of America. americanutopiabroadway.com
David Byrne is one of America’s great musical thinkers. He’s a Scottish immigrant from Dumbarton, Dunbartonshire, Scotland who moved to Canada at age 2 and then the USA as a child.
He went on to found the Talking Heads which brought Yoruba culture into Punk Rock/New Wave, and Luaka Bop which was one of the great World Music record labels before there were World Music labels.
Byrne rose to prominence as the front man for Punk/New Wave group Talking Heads (1975-1991).
The band met in art school at the Rhode Island School of Design and brought an artsy sensibility to what was a pretty wild New York scene. They came up out of CBGB’s down no the Bowery with the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith and other legends. CBGB’s basement bathrooms were something. If walls could talk.
Talking Heads broke out in 1977 which was a year when New York City hit bottom. But it was a worst of times and best of times scenario. Disco, Punk, Salsa, and Hip-Hop all came out of the Studio 54, CBGB, and Mudd Club era.
The band made a couple of albums with renowned producer Brian Eno that were almost conceptual art. Like a good producer, Eno expanded the band’s mind. They were playing with I Ching, the Chinese astrology method, and other esoterica.
1979’s “I Zimbra” sounds African to most American ears, but was actually based on a Dadaist poem. Dada art was European surrealist anarchy which was claimed as an inspiration for Punk Rock. But Talking Heads played “I Zimbra” as hard Funk which foretold what was perhaps their greatest innovation, and would turn Byrne’s career on its head.
Remain in Light
The band’s fourth album, 1980’s “Remain in Light” changed everything. In the same way that Pablo Picasso revolutionized art by looking to Africa for inspiration, Byrne revolutionized American music by looking to the Afrobeat style of Nigerian Fela Kuti.
Afrobeat is African music with American Jazz, R&B and Funk influences. African traditions made a round trip, and then came back to America through this Scottish immigrant.
Suddenly this downtown Punk/New Wave Rock band was playing West African polyrhythms, singing call and response, and channeling Yoruba and Arab culture.
Try keeping polyrhythms in your body (beat 3 or more different rhythms at the same time). Caribbean and Brazilian drummers do it, but it’s really hard. You have to have multiple brains, or some other superpower. We’ve noticed that Brazilian drummers can make a tin can sound like an entire drum kit. That’s really super.
Yoruba culture (Yorubaland is in Nigeria, Benin and Togo) is the dominant African culture in the Americas including the United States. African Diaspora drum, song and dance traditions are a core element of social organization. Colonizers feared the drum because they feared uprisings. But “Djembe,” the West African word for a type of drum means “everyone gathering together in peace.” That’s what “American Utopia” is all about.
“Remain in Light” came out in 1980. America never heard anything quite like this.
Once in a Lifetime
The lyrics to “Once in a Lifetime” are memorable to anyone who is international:
“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?'”
After getting all that beautiful stuff, the singer begins to reject it, saying this is not mine. Smart, because stuff doesn’t make you happy, sharing life does.
The song’s chorus is all about water. That’s Yemayá, the Yoruba Great Mother of all of us who in the Caribbean is the goddess of the sea.
Another song on the album “The Great Curve” says “the world moves on a woman’s hips.” That’s a reference to tumbao, the natural swing in an African woman’s walk. That’s the great curve, and Byrne was right. Men often take the credit, but women are the principal guardians of culture. In both West Africa, the Caribbean and Brazil, we have traditions of very strong women.
Interestingly, the “Remain in Light” album cover masked the band members. That’s an allusion to Picasso and African ritual masks which we hadn’t noticed before. It also suggests that they are calling the ancestors and channelling their own divinity.
The Brazilian drum line that Byrne loves and uses a lot in “American Utopia” comes from Carnival. Both “American Utopia” and Carnival are multicultural traditions. It all fits together.
The African Diaspora and Indigenous Peoples drum, sing and dance for faith, family, community and love. We drum, sing and dance to remain in light.
Everybody’s Coming to My House
The message of “American Utopia” is that whoever you are, wherever you are from, whoever you love, however you look, your voice is valued. That’s how our country is supposed to be.
Our house is everybody’s house. Utopia is not mine, it is ours. There is no “them,” there is only “us.” When you begin to see your house as everybody’s house, something inexplicable and almost magical happens.
“Everybody’s coming to my house and we’re never going to be alone, and we’re never gonna go back home.” If you just sing along, you may find yourself living in the American Utopia.