A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That

After a two-year hiatus, the members of local Latin funk fusion outfit Bacon Bits are back and shaking their funky sazón all over Miami's alternative hot spots. But now the boys have a fuller flavor.

Founding trombone player John Speck (a.k.a. Tocino) and his loyal guitarist Kevin Sanchez (a.k.a. Buffalo Brown) are all that remain of the original group. Recent performances have proven that the lineup tweaks, resting, and playing with other groups have served Bacon Bits well. Though their shows still radiate the sort of happy-go-lucky spontaneity that endeared them to audiences in the first place, the music is tempered with a more sophisticated take on their trademark folk-Caribo-Latin style.

The Bacon Bits — now consisting of Sanchez, Speck, percussionist Oscar Guardado, stand-up bassist Mark Beverly, and conga player Junior Vitale — adeptly oscillate from salsa, cumbia, and bachata to reggae, hip-hop, and all funky points in between. When old fans get their hands on the studio debut in January, they'll be shocked to find the group has broadened its musical horizons far beyond the coveted Live at One Ninety bootleg passed around in 2003.

Despite the Bacon Bits' slippery genre classification, their music is a near-perfect reflection of Sanchez and Speck's culturally schizophrenic past as well the kitchen-sink aesthetic that serves as the central signpost for the Latin funk fusion craze.

"Miami is like a choose-your-own-adventure. Take these different traditions and cultures and come up with your own story," reflects Speck. "For example, if I try to play straight traditional Cuban music, I'm going to end up being a second-rate Cuban music player. And that's showing respect for traditions and elders, and it's also about making something new."

Respect for tradition and adherence to it are two entirely different things, and while Speck's and Sanchez's childhoods couldn't have been more different, both relished the role of the misfit. For Speck, the free-to-be-me attitude was a moral value instilled in him by his parents; for Sanchez, it was his salvation.

"I remember looking at the world as a teenager and saying, 'There's something better. I don't necessarily have to fit in, but I know I'm not happy with this,'" says Sanchez.

Sanchez's father was a conservative evangelical pastor, so his musical introduction came from the traditional hymns he solemnly plunked out at the piano next to the altar of a North Miami church. As a teenager, he listened to alt-rock and hip-hop as he planned to be a percussionist — the best way to pound out the frustrations of growing up as a pastor's kid. When his parents told him he couldn't bang on the drums after 9:00 p.m., he began plucking at his sister's guitar and never stopped.

Speck, meanwhile, was raised by hippie parents in Port Townsend, Washington, where his father made wooden boats and his mother sold felt art. He eagerly absorbed the jazz, blues, folk, and flamenco music that billowed from his family's stereo, and he was exposed to a wealth of worldly sounds every year at Port Townsend's world folk music festival.

Given this thick cultural gumbo, it should come as no surprise that when Speck was finishing high school in Washington State in the mid-Nineties, he rejected the local grunge scene and instead learned to play cumbia and salsa.

"I'd like to try and get past the point where you're like, 'Oh, that person does cumbia or that person does hip-hop,'" Speck comments. "Putting everybody in boxes helps people in some ways, but I feel things are getting so intertwined."

Speck arrived in South Beach in 2000 as a DJ for Comcast's satellite music channel. While SoBe's haughty hedonism smothers less adventuresome types, the scene was a breath of fresh air for Speck. A few months later, Speck would quit his day job to pursue a five-year career with Miami's top fusion band, the Spam Allstars.

"Miami is so heterogeneous, and that's where I find freedom," said Speck. "You know, I can go into a club and do whatever I want and wear weird clothes.... At the worst, people will be like, 'Oh, that guy's a gringo,' and at their best, they'll be like, 'Oh, that guy's having a great time. I wanna have a great time too!'"

Speck and Sanchez formed Bacon Bits in 2003 after the latter left Florida International University to perform with reggae band Earth Citizens and the experimental group Out of Anonymous. Their style quickly meshed, and the group became a favorite at the now-defunct One Ninety restaurant in the Design District.

But their paths separated the following year because Speck's Spam gig became too demanding, while Sanchez began performing with Siete Rayo and Sol Jam. Then in January, Speck left Spam because of lung complications exacerbated by smoky bars. The Bacon Bits were reborn this summer after Speck went stir-crazy sitting at home and ended up calling Sanchez to play around with new sounds.

The duo's disparate backgrounds are apparent in their live repertoire. Crowd-pleaser "Chamfle" is a funky soca-son, while "Rent Hustle" is sheer melodious funk. "Nadie Quiere Asi" is a brazenly emotional grunge song that cries out for one last chance with a lost love. Speck said it's a metaphor for his return to his musical self.

But most of his lyrics are cute and catchy like the traditional tunes he learned as a Wesleyan University student traveling in Cuba in 1997. For example, "Coolocumbia" says, "Let's dance, let's enjoy ourselves/This rich rhythm was born in a place/Where all the cultures come to offer/A free spirit that never stops loving." A quick cha-cha spices up each refrain of a melody reminiscent of the Cuban song "Quizás."

Speck's voice doesn't pack as much punch as his horn-blowing, but he's developing it. Plus his enthusiasm for singing is evident when he spouts off a curiously comical mix of folk-rap lyrics in goofy songs like "Funky Chicken."

"You know my grandma did the funky chicken/Why can't you?/We know you really like to shake/If you'd just let it go," Speck chants. Sanchez busts out a guitar solo that sends dancers into exhaustive gyrations, and then Speck blows them off the floor with his hyperactive trombone.

Bacon Bits' parallel strains of silliness and spontaneity are contagious. At any given concert, Caribbean guys in gold chains and mustaches can be found spinning patchouli-scented bohemian gringas in circles. As they giggle girlishly, the ladies are swept away by Sanchez's calypso-esque guitar and Speck's bubbling trombone.

"It's about finding roots in another culture," notes Speck.