As David Byrne’s ‘Rei Momo’ Turns 30, We Look Back at Its Complicated History

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

“Now and then I get horny/At night you do/At night you do”

The opening lines of Rei Momo opener “Independence Day” betray the motivations for much of the West’s engagement with Black culture. Indeed, the white man has been horny for Africa since they first set foot on the continent.

And in the 30 years since that album – David Byrne’s first solo LP – was first released, the pop culture discourse is more open to considering the fraught dynamic of Western colonization of music rooted in Africa than it’s ever been. Were it released today, Rei Momo (Portuguese for King Momo, the king of Carnival), Byrne’s attempt to write an album of songs from various Latin traditions – cumbia, orisa, merengue, mapeye, bomba, salsa, cha cha, charanga, rumba, samba, and bolero – would certainly warrant a closer examination of how he incorporated these sounds and rhythms into his own songs.

And Rei Momo is definitely rooted in Byrne’s love and appreciation for Afro-Latino music, sounds from the African continent brought with the enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade and colored by the miscegenation of colonialism and global trade.

Rei Momo doesn’t really engage with any of that; it’s perspective is rooted in the emotions Byrne experiences while engaging with the music he loves. It’s bright, fun, and occasionally goofy, a reflection of his relationship with the music. In a historical review of the history of his label Luaka Bop, he gets to the root of why he invested so much energy in sharing. “Whenever I found a record I thought was especially cool, I’d play it for my friends and hype it and watch their reaction,“ he said. “My impulse was like any fan’s, not a do-gooder attitude…I wanted to turn friends on to stuff I liked.”

The litmus test for cultural appropriation is at once simple yet multi-faceted. Is the work respectful, or exploitative? Unlike the Talking Heads records, the lines to the cultures Byrne is drawing from are clear and direct; he’s making Latin pop records in English, but he’s pointing directly at where he got he sounds from. Does it honor the culture and the people who created it, or leave them out? Byrne has sole writing credit and co-produced the album with the unfortunately named Steve Lillywhite, but the band he assembled is an all-star team of Latin stars, from Fania legends Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco, and Celia Cruz, to legendary Boricua conguero Milton Cardona. When he toured in support of the record, he brought along the Brazilian singer Margareth Menezes.

But perhaps the clearest sign that Byrne’s intentions are benevolent is that Rei Momo isn’t an aberration or a passing phase; he’s continued to explore, engage with the music through his Luaka Bop label ever since. If Byrne’s goal is to use his pop platform to turn people on to his favorite music, he’s succeeded. Cruz and Colon were already stars when they collaborated with Byrne, but he undoubtedly exposed Talking Heads fans to the origin of the melodies and rhythms that made their records sound so fresh to Anglo audiences. And the records that followed Rei Momo on Luaka Bop have indeed had lasting influence – It’s unlikely Tom Zé’s late career would look like it does had Byrne not introduced his work to a new audience.

Rei Momo may owe it’s enduring relevance more to the timeless beauty of the cultures he borrowed from than anything Byrne brought to the table. But it doesn’t hurt that the record is full of bops.