Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band Travels Across Generations And Genres

Sep 17, 2018
Originally published on September 18, 2018 8:40 pm

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 Mouth walks 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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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Steel pan albums from Trinidad and Tobago began to catch on with U.S. tourists back in the 1960s. This led many bands on the islands to incorporate American pop into their repertoire, and eventually those songs traveled the world on vinyl records. They caught the ears of some German musicians, and now the Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band has just released a new album paying tribute to that steel pan fusion tradition. Reviewer Oliver Wang is really happy about it.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: The steel pan fad hit a peak in the United States in the early '70s 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESSO TRINIDAD STEEL BAND SONG, "I WANT YOU BACK")

WANG: This craze clearly struck a chord with Germany's Bjorn Wagner, who after living in Trinidad and Tobago returned to Hamburg and formed the Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band 10 years ago. The band's new album, "The Serpent's Mouth," is its second full-length, and parts of it take the steel band cover tradition to delightfully unexpected ends.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACAO RHYTHM & STEEL BAND'S "XXPLOSIVE")

WANG: That's Bacao's steel pan version of Dr. Dre's 1999 hit "Xxplosive." Now try to stay with me here. Dre's song heavily sampled a 1971 song that itself was a cover of an Isaac Hayes song off 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACAO RHYTHM & STEEL BAND'S "XXPLOSIVE")

WANG: There are plenty of 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACAO RHYTHM & STEEL BAND'S "CROCKETT THEME")

WANG: If the album only comprised covers songs, the conceit could wear thing. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACAO RHYTHM & STEEL BAND'S "MARACAS BAY BOOGIE")

WANG: "The Serpent's Mouth" walks a tightrope between embracing the 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 nearly 50 years later, you can still hear Jackson 5 covers in all their steely glory.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACAO RHYTHM & STEEL BAND'S "GREAT TO BE HERE")

CORNISH: Our reviewer Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and co-hosts the music podcast Heat Rocks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.