GERMANY: 55 - Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band
An unusual combination has once again born fruitful results with Caribbean sounds merging with a wide range of genres
We have been working on this project and this website for a long time now. We’re coming up to two years of the website in the summer, and we are nearly at the end of our goal of listening and reviewing at least one album from every country. In those two years of listening to music at a ludicrous rate, our opinions on many things art-related have changed over that time, whether its my amelioration to reggae music, or Danny’s rapprochement towards the more melodic side of heavy metal, ideally performed by Finns in dinosaur costumes. However, there remains one joking phrase we use when a musical concept or genre sounds too experimental for its own good. Deriving itself from a line spoken by Homer Simpson, ‘nuts and gum’ has become a shorthand for two things that don’t need to combined or shouldn’t be combined. In musical terms, we use it to describe an album that could be a catastrophic mess of fusion. 55 by the Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band definitely seemed like that at first glance. Having been described to me as German steelpan funk music, I felt hesitant. In the same way I’d be sceptical listening to a Trinidadian oompah band, German steelpanning, as a concept, felt somewhat off. I was, however, quickly proven wrong. This is another thing I have since learned during the two years of this process – nine times out of ten, fusion music works, no matter how off the wall.
“It may not be traditional steelpan usage, but that does not matter at all here, as the beautiful sound of the steelpans is used as an accompaniment to a wide range of genres, showing the instrument’s versatility and flexibility. ”
The basis of the music on 55 is funk, and they’ve added a Caribbean influence on top by deftly incorporating the steelpans. Bandleader Björn Wagner spent time in Trinidad and Tobago, where he played in funk bands and learned how to play the steelpans. Upon returning to Hamburg, he formed Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, and 55 is their debut effort. Rather cleverly the album begins with a cover of PIMP by 50 Cent, the original of which also features the steelpans, making it a natural fit for Wagner and Co to adapt to their funky steelpan style. By transposing the vocal melody onto a saxophone, they manage to turn the iconic rap hit into a mellow, almost jazzy tune that evokes the Caribbean. Songs like Laventille Road March and Tropical Heat, on the other hand, are far more upbeat tunes, with roaring drumbeats with an almost hip-hop flavour to them, whereas Scorpio combines those energetic drums with wah-wah pedal guitar, creating a sound akin to a funk rock classic remixed by a DJ who happened to have a steelpan handy. In contrast, songs like Queen of Cheeba and Round & Round still use the funk and steelpan basis that is found throughout the album, but the bass riffs they use add an element of R&B to the proceedings.
Overall, the album is a selection of tunes that are extremely accomplished and have an interesting sound to them. Wagner and his bandmates are not afraid to mix and match genres where necessary turning up the funk and dialling down the steelpans, or vice versa, wherever it suits the needs of the song. It may not be traditional steelpan usage, but that does not matter at all here, as the beautiful sound of the steelpans is used as an accompaniment to a wide range of genres, showing the instrument’s versatility and flexibility. What could have been a novelty record is instead a glorious selection of instrumental covers and original songs that flows smoothly, due to the skill of the band and how they are able to incorporate the steelpan into funk music. The cover of PIMP may be the best song on the piece, just because of how amusingly it subverts the original song while also being great in its own right, but equally many of the other original songs could be substituted in its place. German steelpan funk might raise some eyebrows, but give it a listen and I’m sure you’ll be convinced of its merits.