Purists may turn their noses up at these mix-and-match sonic Cuisinarts, but not Byrne. He has reinvented himself as their ambassador-at-large via his Luaka Bop label, issuing their work (with major-label distribution and promotional muscle from Warner Bros.) to a wide American audience. Indeed it's hard to imagine the current surge of hipster Anglo interest in Brazilian tropicalismo, Cuban beats, or rock en español, without Byrne's Luaka Bop releases (their first domestic issuances) from Tom Zé, Jorge Ben, Silvio Rodriguez, Grupo Vocal Sampling, King Changó, Los Amigos Invisibles, and Bloque.
"As an outsider I can hear the similar impulses manifesting themselves in a lot of these rock en españolgroups from different countries," Byrne says. "It seems like the same process is going on in each place, and they're finding their own unique solution to dealing with their cultural and musical identity."
One country whose cultural development Byrne doesn't find encouraging is Cuba. Although Luaka Bop's 1992 release of New Directions in Cuban Music -- Diablo Al Infiernowas a crucial catalyst in introducing the island's late Eighties and turn-of-the-decade experimental currents to the world, don't expect the label to produce a sequel. For Byrne, who last visited Cuba in the early Nineties ("when the dollar was still illegal"), the musical conversation between that nation and the United States has become too one-sided.
"The stuff I've heard coming out now is all rap. I have some friends who love it," he says, "but for me it's not musically capitalizing on what's deep-rooted in the culture. It's an imitation of what's being heard over Miami radio."
Still, Byrne is all too familiar with the notion of self-estrangement. "Once I've finished a record I never listen to it again. Sometimes I'll hear something I like on the radio, and somebody will point out,'That's you! That's from Stop Making Sense!' I won't even recognize it."