Southern Tropical Harmony Steel Band
Limbo Party






Limbo Party by the session musician-populated collective called Southern Tropical Harmony Steel Band is a seemingly ephemeral yet – considering the very genre – outstanding seven-track LP precisely tailored to coincide with the sudden Calypso craze that reaches North American shores in 1962 and is further fueled by none other than one Chubby Checker whose Calypso album even carries the same title. This review is, I believe, about the lesser known but better album. Limbo Party is the vision of US-label owner and producer Sidney Frey (1920–1968) who realizes the Calypso-related marketing potential almost immediately and sets everything in motion in order to cash in on the Caribbean aura that wafts around the shores of his homeland. Talented steel pan musicians are quickly gathered in the studio in 1962, and the album is released in the same year on Frey’s own Audio Fidelity record label, oddly enough with a cool front cover that is licensed from the West Indian Tobacco Company Ltd.; those were the days indeed!


Exotica fans who already possess one of the Beastie Boys' favorites called Steel Vibrations (1973) by Amral’s Trinidad Cavaliers Steel Orchestra and are fond of the occasional steel pan alloy in their exotic music will definitely love the various textures and surfaces of the signature instruments. There is one enigma surrounding Sidney Frey’s album, however, which I cannot answer either. It belongs to the repertoire of tricks of any marketing and public relations buff to never give away the whole truth of how a particular record came to be. This can be applied to Limbo Party as well, so here is the riddle: whether this LP was recorded on site in Trinidad and Tobago – analogous to Ti-Marcel and Ti-Roro’s Voodoo Drums In Hi-Fi (1958) being actually recorded in Haiti – or created on North American soil remains a mystery. But the Calypso feeling is über-strong and fueled further by the congas and maracas that are all over the place. And boy, does side B hold a su-su-surprise!


The first drops in the bucket on the opener Cachita, originally envisioned by Rafael Hernández, encapsulate the whole turquoise-lilac color spectrum of a Caribbean island of one’s choice. The pointillistic melody of paradise on the steel pans is played in a delicately muffled and diffuse way, but this is purposely done and has anything to do with a less than stellar recording technique, for the ameliorating acoustic guitar sunbursts and the rapidly firing percussion prowess in the form of dark congas and sizzling maracas are much more in the forefront. They create the jungle coppice through which the sunlit panorama unfolds. The real treat is not so much found in the intertwinement of all ingredients – which is undoubtedly successful – but the fact that Hernández never intended his piano arrangement called Cachita to be a Calypso critter. The transmutation unfolds flawlessly. Cachita is uplifting and effervescent, the fact that the steel pans are silkened and not all too punchy augments the feeling of being draped in a phantasmagoric moiré of rose-tinted retrospection. A superb opener.


Up next is Pepe, a unique cut by a composer (and possibly band member) called Mr. Wittstaff-Langdon. This midtempo tune surprises with a Bossa Nova rhythm as unchained by the maracas and is then accentuated by blurred drums. The actual focus is on the steel pans this time, with their range being widened; sometimes they almost resemble cowbells – the world really does need more cowbell –, at other times the vibrato style masks a hidden Latin lamento. These are fleeting moments though, as the sun continues to shine on the iridescent instruments.


Look For A Star is actually a nocturnal brass-heavy big band incarnation by Anthony Peter "Tony" Hatch, so the question is whether the moonlit scenario can be respectfully interwoven into the tropical setting of Trinidad and Tobago. The answer is a clarion yes! The slower, more easygoing rhythm aorta of the well-known drum-and-maraca coupling lets the star dust-coated steel pan shrapnel illumine the positively crepuscular atmosphere all the better. The melody is not always easy to recognize since many layers are grafted onto each other and cause an orderly mayhem, but this can definitely be embraced as a signature element. Since there is no brazen instrument on the figurative beach, the main melody becomes aeriform and lofty, simply paradisiac and worthy of the Exotica label.


Whereas Never On Sunday by the Greek composer and pianist Manos Hadjidakis injects a safari-evoking rhythm with an implied vehicular movement into the ears of the listening subject and ennobles this rolling motion with one dedicated staccato steel pan line for the lead melody and another aquatic-drowsy one for their accompaniment, it is Eduardo Davidson’s and Jeanne Pollack’s Pachanga which was presumably close to producer Sidney Frey’s heart due to the craze regarding the Pachanga genre that lent the track its name; the melody is genuinely Caribbean to begin with, the steel pan players drop cascades – or rather kaleidoscopes – of eclectic helixes and spirals all the while the congas and shakers underline the partly vitreous, partly verdured tittles. This bustling song boosts the feeling of togetherness and is a counterpoint to the dreamy-poeticizing Look For A Star. Side A closes with a mysterious song called Caramelos. It is not the eponymous tune by Tito Puente, although this would be fitting because of the tropicalized lacunar structure which lets the laid-back conga scheme shine as prominently as the wonderfully streamlined yet sparkling lead melody. Caramelos is a great tune for vintage Exotica fans who like a more orderly arrangement which retains the fresh cleanliness that is a trademark of this album. 


Side B turns out to be the big fish. It is solely dedicated to the magnanimous, gargantuan sequence of vignettes that is simply called Limbo, a whopping 14+ minutes of grandiloquence, cavalcades of colors and transformative paroxysms that leave any chance of doldrums and quietness behind. This is sybaritism in steel pan form! The drum layers change throughout the tune, but thankfully fuel the respective sections long enough so that the tune does not become an unstable ditty of alatoric contingency. Since the runtime is so long, the attention to detail and the mindfulness of even the greatest Exotica eremite or Calypso connoisseur will definitely wane at one point, but this is already calculated: the change between highly melodious sequences and their textural foils is marvelously realized. The steel pans and the drums are most often recorded at the same volume level, the percussion sounds crisp and the players show a particular joy of playing the arabesques and whirling yet amicable maelstroms. 


I may be totally wrong and start to hallucinate due to the barnstorming fluxion, but I am almost certain that a few notes of Morton Gould’s often considered Tropical off his symphonic Exotica opus Jungle Drums (1957) made it into the large gallimaufry of segues and tidbits. Even if I am wrong, Limbo shows the majesty and pompousness of the otherwise belittled Calypso genre. Not just small shanties and picayune ditties made it onto the album, but one huge sesquipedalian arrangement to rule them all. At times, I use this hymnic track of side B for jogging purposes. Its arousing qualities and shape-shifting yet cohesive structures were not created with workout purposes in mind, but do indeed improve and purify such occasions. A great delight and an essential Calypso capsule that is much less cheesy and stereotyped than one might imagine.


Calling Limbo Party the holy grail of the Calypso genre or steel pan-infused sub-genres might exaggerate the true scope of this album, and given my lack of detailed knowledge in terms of these traditions I will definitely stay away from such sensational labels anyway, but rest assured that the session musicians of the Southern Tropical Harmony Steel Band know how to treat a steel pan as well as the congas and maracas, for there is anything else on board, and yet it is more than enough to paint crystalline beach sceneries, nocturnal breezes of insouciance and a seemingly endless stream of reorganized Caribbean patterns and surfaces. Limbo Party is on the brink of edutainment albums: while there are no vocals at all, let alone a lesson how to properly beat the steel pan akin to Jack Costanzo’s bongo lectures, the back sleeve at least provides viable information in terms of the instruments and, yes, even the ingredients one needs for a limbo party.


Music-wise, the always uplifting mélange of tunes is an elation and carefully balanced, as genuine Caribbean material such as Pachanga is intertwined with calypsofied hits à la Cachita and bounteously rounded off by the long-winded Limbo on side B. Exotica listeners who do not shy away from a steel pan extravaganza should definitely investigate this album’s peculiar charm. The various textures emanating from the steel pans are definitely worth checking out, as is the exotic percussion. Luckily, the album has been digitally reissued more than once, and while no master tapes were involved in this process, the download versions on Amazon MP3 and iTunes are the next best thing to the vinyl incarnation, which is also easy to fetch for small bucks on eBay, GEMM and other places as well.


Exotica Review 284: Southern Tropical Harmony Steel Band – Limbo Party (1962). Originally published on Nov. 23, 2013 at