David Byrne – Rei Momo

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

It took me a while to figure out I was not into the Talking Heads, even as I could point to several songs of theirs that I liked (this is sometimes known – to me – as Bob Mould Syndrome); I tend to prefer very early Talking Heads, but even then, neither consistently nor deeply. Thus, it is a mystery why I ended up with David Byrne’s first post-Talking Heads solo release, but maybe not so much of a mystery why I like it.

What I Think of This Album

David Byrne lovingly explores Latin music on this album, which features collaborations with several Latin American superstars, including Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, percussionist Milton Cardona, and Johnny Pacheco. Was I concerned about the possibility of this being an exploitative project? You bet! Do I think it is? No. First, this actually seems pretty light on the Byrne and heavy on the authentic Latin sounds. That is, this doesn’t sound like the whitewashing and co-opting of culture. Second, it helps that Byrne identifies his partners by name and also the genre of each song. These are signs of respect and admiration, and an honest recitation of what’s happening on the album. Third, Byrne established the Luaka Bop label, which has been releasing and promoting world music since 1988, so I’m not inclined to see Rei Momo as mere tourism.

With that aside, the songs are delightful. Over 15 tracks, Byrne and his giant cast of musicians celebrate genres from cumbia to merengue to charanga to salsa to mapeyé and several others. This is a vibrant and joyous album; everyone seems like they’re having an absolute blast. “Independence Day” is fantastic; the bright horns and dizzying percussion of “Make Believe Mambo” are amazing, as is the piano by Paquito Pastor. The dual accordions (one played by Jamie Fearnley of the Pogues) of yearning “The Call of the Wild” carry the song, only to be upstaged by the countermelody of the backing chorus.

“Dirty Old Town” could easily have been a Talking Heads song – this is the number that Byrne dominates the most, with a familiar vocal melody. “The Rose Tattoo” is as dark and moody as it is intricate, with another outstanding choral part, and some impressive work on the cuatro by Yomo Toro. Celia Cruz’s vocals are a long time coming in “Loco De Amor” but when they finally arrive they cut through like a laser – if only there were more of them (Byrne should have ceded more of the spotlight on this one). Cheap Trick will have to give up the rights to the name “The Dream Police” in recognition of the superior, smoothly gliding cha cha chá number here. “Good and Evil” is a mesmerizing rumba, boomy in its low end with piercing strings and sinister horns, as well as another piano showcase for Pastor. This album is an overlooked gem.

Rei Momo translates to King of the Carnival in Portuguese (with “momo” deriving from the Greek god of satire and mockery). Fellow Latin music enthusiast Kirsty MacColl sings backup on several songs (and her husband, Steve Lillywhite produced).

The Best Thing About This Album

Probably “Call of the Wild” but “Good and Evil” is a close second. In fact, with only a few exceptions, any song on the album could win this crown.

Release Date

October, 1989

The Cover Art

This is fairly disturbing, with Byrne’s face overlaid by a lattice of what might be cardiac tissue? The colors are also off-putting.

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