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Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band Travels Across Generations And Genres

The latest album from Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, <a href="https://bacaorhythmandsteelband.bandcamp.com/album/the-serpents-mouth"><em>The Serpent's Mouth</em></a>, walks a tightrope between embracing steel pan's melodious charm and its kitschy past.
Sesse Lind
Courtesy of the artist
The latest album from Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, The Serpent's Mouth, walks a tightrope between embracing steel pan's melodious charm and its kitschy past.

Back in the 1960s, steel pan albums from Trinidad and Tobago began to catch on with United States tourists, leading many bands to incorporate pop hits into their repertoire. The fad hit a peak in the U.S. in 1971 when an album by the Esso Trinidad Steel Band netted a Grammy nomination for best ethnic or traditional recording. Notably though, the most enduring song off that album wasn't a traditional Trinidadian standard, but a cover of The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." This craze clearly struck a chord with Germany's Björn Wagner, who, after living in Trinidad and Tobago, returned to Hamburg, Germany and formed the Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band.

The band's latest album, The Serpent's Mouth, out now, is its second full length. Parts of the album take the steel band cover tradition to delightfully unexpected ends, such as Bacao's steel pan version of Dr. Dre's 1999 hit "Xxplosive." Dre's song heavily sampled a 1971 song that itself was a cover of an Isaac Hayes song on the Shaft soundtrack. If nothing else, the Bacao Band's cover of a sample of a cover is a marvelous example of how music travels, across time, space, genre and generation.

There are plenty of other entertaining "name that tune" moments on The Serpent's Mouth, as the band adds its tinny timbre to tracks by Mary J. Blige, Mobb Deep, Gang Starr and perhaps most unexpectedly, Jan Hammer and his "Crockett's Theme" from the Miami Vice TV soundtrack.

If the album only comprised cover songs, the conceit could wear thin. But nearly half of the tunes are original compositions, and when the musicians free themselves to play in whatever style they want, equally infectious surprises emerge. The Serpent's Mouthwalks a tightrope between embracing steel pan's melodious charm and its kitschy past. If that's the bargain to be struck, it doesn't seem like a bad one. At the very least, it means that, nearly 50 years later, you can still hear The Jackson 5 covers in all their steely glory.

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Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.