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Who would've guessed that beneath the milquetoast exterior of David Byrne burned the heart of a hot-blooded, hip-swiveling, Jose Cuervo-swigging Latino?

Certainly not the followers of Byrne's tenure as a self-consciously unemotional and asexual Talking Head. As the New York band's brainy, neurotic front man, Byrne has been the leading purveyor of thinking-man's new-wave for well over a decade. A literate, high-strung, avant-garde pop artiste? Sure. But a fiery, exotic, Lambada-inspiring crooner? No way, Jose.

So when Byrne announced he was going to record an album of Latin music, who could blame some listeners for snickering? The consensus among Talking Heads fans and nonfans alike was that the Anglo-popster's new platter would probably be about as spicy and satisfying as a meal at your neighborhood Taco Bell.

But Byrne fooled nearly everyone last year by unleashing Rei Momo, a brassy, sensual and respectably picante album of original salsas, sambas and cha-chas. He admits, however, there are still some who just can't buy his Latino makeover.

"For some people it takes a little getting used to," Byrne says of his new South American sound in a recent telephone interview from Dallas. "You can get one image of a person stuck in your mind. I remember when the Talking Heads were first around, we were being labeled a punk band, and we always felt that that was a misnomer. I think the change in perception is slow. But it happens."

The spasmatic singer has never been as white-bread as his pasty-faced prep appearance might lead us to believe. As far back as the Talking Heads' 1980 landmark Afro-beat LP Remain in Light, Byrne was dabbling in funk and Third World music.

Byrne's interest in African music eventually led him to New York's Afro-Cuban record shops and night clubs. "Starting around 1979 or 1980, whenever I wanted to go dancing I would go to those clubs rather than discos," recalls the singer. "I thought the music had more swing, and I thought the clubs, to be honest, were more civilized. There was a good vibe. And the music was live. Granted, at some of the discos later on--Paradise Garage and places like that--the deejays would get more creative. But at that time hardly anybody was doing anything with mixes. They were just playing disco music real loud and doing a lot of drugs."

After shimmying to salsa music in New York City's Puerto Rican clubs, Byrne decided to try his hand at writing a Latin tune of his own. The result, the spunky, reggae-spiked "Loco de Amor," became the unofficial theme song for Jonathan Demme's 1986 film Something Wild.

The song also turns up on Rei Momo. Byrne's latest album is a mix of tribal rhythms, tropical atmospherics and horn sections that seem right out of "Lonely Bull"-period Herb Alpert. But the LP is more credible than it might appear, thanks mainly to Byrne's astute songwriting, which draws upon the spirit and folklore of the Latin culture.

Byrne never tries to pass himself off as a Julio Iglesias-style swarthy-sexy balladeer on Rei Momo. In fact, he doesn't warble a word of Spanish on the entire album. "At the time, I felt like I couldn't do it with the right inflections and the right kind of feeling," Byrne says of his decision to sing en ingles. "And, as I guess everyone knows, there's a big difference between being able to speak in a language and being able to sing in a language."

The unapologetic gringo admits he barely has the skills to pass a Spanish 101 class. This is why he wisely left the Spanish choruses--or coros--on Rei Momo to the Latin back-up singers. On songs like "The Call of the Wild," their sizzling harmonies are an effective counterpoint to Byrne's quavery, off-kilter vocals.

Because the only Spanish or Portuguese you'll hear on Rei Momo is restricted to some scattered choruses, there are those who are knocking the LP for being too Anglo-fied. Critics argue that this is the kind of overly sophisticated, inauthentic Latin music that white yupsters can enjoy with their blue corn tortilla chips and frozen margaritas, positive they're soaking up real South American culture.

But you can hardly slam Byrne for not turning out a purist Latin record when that was never his intent. "On some of the songs I think I kept the grooves too pure," asserts the singer. "I used kind of the old ways, the old instruments, the stuff that's not current anymore on the Latin scene. On other songs I'd dirty the waters a bit. But I feel that's the way musical change happens. You've got to let that happen--for better or worse."

Rei Momo does take on Latin music irreverently at times--witness the loopy play on charanga music, "Marching Through the Wilderness"--but never with a lack of respect. Byrne's tunes always remain true to the Afro-Latin spirit, whether he's noodling with sambas, bambas or rumbas.

Despite the respect Byrne shows for these musical forms on the album, he's still been accused of leeching off Rei Momo's estimable Latin talent. Paul Simon was slapped with the same kind of criticism for his Afro-pop hit Graceland. Why buy Simon's watered-down, Westernized collaborations with a group like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, many asked, when you can just as easily pick up one of Mambazo's own discs?

Byrne argues that the whole point of these pan-cultural endeavors is to raise the profile of all the individuals involved. "I agree that there are lots of great Latin records out there, and I hope people do go out and buy them," professes the singer. "That's certainly one of the effects that I hope Rei Momo has. But I also feel like this is my music. I'm not trying to make a Willie Colon record or a Johnny Pacheco record or whatever. I'm trying to do it my way."

Byrne never felt like he was pillaging the musical riches of the Latin culture or exploiting its talent while making Rei Momo. As the singer sees it, "culture robbing" has become a dead issue in today's multi-ethnic music scene.

"Living in New York, I feel that this is not another culture's music," reasons Byrne. "Latin music is becoming part of the culture of the United States, part of the aural fabric of the United States. It's certainly not true everywhere, but in New York that's what you hear coming out of the cars and blasting out of the clubs and out of the boom boxes on the street. My feeling is that Latin music is part of the essence of the city that I live in. All I had to do was tap into it."

David Byrne will perform at Mesa Amphitheatre on Wednesday, June 6. Show time is 8 p.m.

The consensus was that the Anglo-popster's new platter would probably be about as spicy and satisfying as a meal at your neighborhood Taco Bell.

The unapologetic gringo admits he barely has the skills to pass a Spanish 101 class. This is why he wisely left the Spanish choruses to Latin back-up singers.


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John Blanco