‘Better late than never’: how Brian Eno and David Byrne finally laid a musical ghost to rest

·8-min read

In early 1970s Lebanon, a young singer from a hill town north of Beirut was on the up. Before the civil war in 1975, the capital was the Arab world’s thriving artistic centre, where folk-dance traditions were reaching new heights. There, Dunya Younes was a rising star, appearing in musicals and collaborating with pillars of Lebanese music such as Zaki Nassif and Wadih el Safi. You can still hear her signature song Waynak Ya Jar – about having a morning coffee with your neighbour – on Lebanese radio today.

Younes later became known far beyond the Middle East – or at least her voice did after it was used on one of the most influential experimental albums of the 80s. But to its fans she was known as “the Lebanese mountain singer”. And she had no idea about it.

In the late 70s, the British producer Brian Eno walked into a London record shop and picked up a copy of Music in the World of Islam 1, The Human Voice, the first compilation in a 1976 series by the musicologists Jean Jenkins and Poul Rovsing Olsen. It included the track Abu Zeluf by one “Dunya Yunis”. Eno, transfixed, took the LP back to New York, and it became a touchstone for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which he and Talking Heads’ David Byrne released in 1981 on Eno’s label, EG Records.

The album is a technological feat of hypnotic tape collage – made before samplers were in widespread use – that inspired everyone from Public Enemy and Kate Bush to Moby and Burial. There were no lead vocals: over dense thickets of dance grooves, it spliced the sound of US preachers and politicians scythed from talk radio with evocative Arabic performances from Music in the World of Islam.

This was before the problematic term “world music” was even coined. At the time, Eno and Byrne’s rhythmic funk, Afrobeat and electronica was groundbreaking, if flawed. The complex subplot of appropriation, copyrights and moral ambiguity behind World of Islam would make for a very niche ethnographical episode of Poirot. The song Abu Zeluf was used on two tracks, Regiment and The Carrier. The liner notes contained a faint whiff of exoticism: “Dunya Yusin [sic], Lebanese mountain singer.”

No one knows where that exact iteration came from, says Eno, although on the original compilation cover, Younes is credited by the musicologists as a “girl from a northern mountain village”. Eno and Byrne weren’t aware that she was an established singer. “I assumed that she was somebody who’d wandered into a recording studio by accident one day and gone back to the mountains and was never seen again,” says Eno. For all they knew she was dead, and she had never heard what they did.

But, 41 years later, Younes is very much alive and on a group video call with her daughter, Rayanne Assaf, from Kfarhbab, north of Beirut. Appearing in the other windows are Eno, in Norfolk, and Byrne, in Denver. It is, as Eno says, “pretty surreal”.

“An uncommon story,” agrees Assaf, who interprets for her mother. “Better late than never.”

Assaf, who has a PhD in international law, had been researching her mother’s archive but one recording eluded her. Younes’s career ended in 1972 at a session convened by the famous Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir in which she was auditioning for a festival in Europe. According to Poul Rovsing Olsen’s diaries, he had been invited along by Bashir and was allowed to record. In the end, Younes was selected for the festival but never went. She had fallen in love with an army officer and started a family instead.

Her songs found their way, via Olsen, on to Music in the World of Islam, released by the Tangent label – whose owner Mike Steyn died in 1999 – – and subsequently My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Eno and Byrne were careful to clear all samples they used, even as hip-hop began to set a new paradigm for sonic pilfering and other white artists, such as Malcolm McLaren, were passing off songs from the African continent as their own.

“It was not easy,” says Byrne. They were banned from using the voice of one evangelist performing an exorcism, delaying the album’s release. Her estate “took a moral objection to her voice being used in that context”, says Byrne. After Bush of Ghosts came out, they also removed the track Qu’ran, following a complaint of blasphemy from the Islamic Council of Great Britain.

Eno says they had cleared Abu Zeluf with Tangent and had thought it was all above board. “We paid them some money as well, actually – £100! Not very much, but we had to insist on that. They [Tangent] were just pleased to have their album mentioned on our album. We assumed that somehow this would be passed on to Dunya – if anybody knew where she was.”

Olsen might have, but he died in 1982. Neither he nor Steyn, it transpired, had made a deal with Younes for their records or even informed her of their release. “We were told all those permissions had been granted and we found out later that they hadn’t,” says Byrne.

A scholarly article published in 2006 attempted to uncover why, but it merely concluded that there were “entangled complicities” at play. It also claimed that Eno sent a letter to a Danish broadcaster in 1987, asking after the Younes recordings: the broadcaster replied outlining that Tangent did “a very bad deal”. But Eno has no recollection of the correspondence.

It wasn’t until recently, Eno insists, that the pair realised that due diligence before them hadn’t been done. In 2017, the writer Bernard Batrouni tracked Younes down via mutual family friends. Younes hadn’t heard of Byrne and Eno; she listened to both albums in disbelief. “What a shock to hear your voice and have no idea how it happened,” says Byrne.

“It was,” she nods.

“Nobody took her authorisation,” agrees Assaf. “She took this decision to end her musical career and her voice continued its path without her authorisation.”

A family representative contacted Eno and Byrne a year later and the musicians immediately wrote a letter of apology, they say. They took Regiment and The Carrier down from streaming platforms – complicated in itself, as Bush of Ghosts had, over the years, been released on six labels. Eventually they reached a mutual understanding out of court, says Assaf, which recognised her mother’s contribution, and the songs were reinstated.

It has remained amicable, they all agree, and Younes is “happy” that, through Eno and Byrne’s experiments, “her voice spread Lebanese culture”.

“It’s rare to listen to a combination of Arabic-Lebanese music and western music,” Assaf continues. “My mother tells me that you feel it’s a new kind of music, you are not just listening to a composer sticking two parts together.”

“You liked ours better?” asks Eno, hopefully.

Apparently not: “She tells me: ‘It’s not like what we did, it’s something else. I don’t like this!’”

Related: David Byrne on leaving Spotify and turning 70: ‘I think I am more optimistic now’

Even so, Younes understands the spirit. There’s the legal aspect to this story, says Assaf, but also “the artistic dimension” was “crucial” to her mother. “She thinks that Brian and David are real artists.”

Would they sample similar music in the same way now?

“I’d probably make a few phone calls and find out where the material really came from,” Eno laughs.

He may joke, but even 41 years ago, Rolling Stone’s Jon Pareles noted that Bush of Ghosts “raises stubborn questions about context, manipulation and cultural imperialism”, questions that still resonate today. What do they make of such criticisms?

Eno is still perplexed. “I find this quite difficult. Culture is always about absorbing ideas from other places. It really depends, I think, on respect and how prepared you are to acknowledge that you took this thing from somewhere else, that it wasn’t your idea alone. We had huge respect. If you want to be purist about cultural imperialism, [I] would be reduced to English folk music of the 11th century as my source.”

“In many parts of the world, it’s western music that tends to dominate,” offers Byrne, who founded his Luaka Bop label, which deals largely in non-western reissues, in 1988. “I remember the first time I went to Brazil, I was shocked to find that I couldn’t hear sambas anywhere. That, to me, is cultural imperialism.”

Back to this uncommon story. It’s a neat ending to a four-decade-long mystery and bittersweet, in a way, that Younes’s promising career in some ways lived on.

“It’s true that her voice went far, but it was in good hands,” says Assaf.

“We’re very lucky,” says Byrne. “It could have turned out a very different way.”

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