The Long, Strange Journey of “Xai Xai”

The other day on social media, the String Cheese Incident promised an “uber bust out”[1] [sic] for that night’s show in Pittsburgh. Sure enough, the band delivered on that promise in the second set, seguing out of “Wake Up” (itself a rarity) into “SKAT”, which had not appeared in a setlist in nine years. Except it’s not called “SKAT” anymore—it’s now known as “Xai Xai”. Whaaaaat? Let’s take a walk, shall we?

If my combined trawl of Phantasy Tour, Livecheese, and the Live Music Archive turned out accurate, then prior to last night SCI had played “SKAT” 30 times in the last 14 years. The bulk of those plays occurred from its debut in February 2001 to the subsequent April. Afterward, its frequency gradually tapered off, to the point where you got lucky if they played it once a year.

The acronym “SKAT” stands for “Some Kind [of] African Tune”. This kind of utilitarian abbreviation crops up occasionally in SCI lore; “Shantytown” was briefly known as “SKORT” (Some Kind of Reggae Tune), and it’s long been known that “MLT” stands for “My Latin Tune”.[2] In a nutshell, the song is the band’s stab at a Tchokola-era Jean Luc Ponty instrumental. (They semi-regularly cover “Mouna Bowa” and “Rhum ‘n’ Zouc” from that album.)

“SKAT” jumped out to a swift and decisive lead as the greatest object of fan interest from the recent vault release Rhythm of the Road, Vol. 2: Live in Las Vegas. Live for Live Music premiered a Soundcloud stream of it ahead of the compilation’s release, and though a few folks have stumped for its return in the past, fan demand swelled once it was known it would be on the Las Vegas set. SKAT-talk reached a fever pitch over the next several days, until finally it culminated in its return to the live scene on October 20, albeit with the new “Xai Xai” title. Same song, different name.

As for that name, Billy claims that it derives from an African phrase “xai xai”, meaning “light from the darkness”, though a cursory Googling doesn’t seem to back that up. It is, however, a city in Mozambique, one that was hit hard in 2000 by flooding, a cause currently close to the band’s heart as they raise money for South Carolina through Conscious Alliance. It also appears to have no relation to the New York City wine bar of the same name (which took its name from the city and claims on its About page that the name has “no profound meaning”).

“SKAT” isn’t the only tune to get a boost from its appearance on a freshly polished live set. As of this writing, they still have to hit up Boston and Madison Square Garden before Hulaween, but they’ve already played all but four songs from Rhythm of the Road, Vol. 2. Those songs are: “Why You Been Gone So Long”; “Get Down Tonight”; “Turn This Around”; and “Let It Go”.

I don’t think WYBGSL has a snowball’s chance, though with Cheese rippin’ straight fire and chuckin’ rarities left and right on this fall tour, don’t count anything out at this point. “Get Down Tonight” seems like a strong possibility for Hulaween, given the confirmed 70s-era “Ghoul Train” theme. “Turn This Around” has only been played twice post-hiatus, both times as the bread to a “Breathe” sandwich. Prospects for it seem dire, but Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” just last night finally got restored to its standalone glory after years of being severely cut down and sandwiched into “Miss Brown’s Teahouse”, so maybe there’s hope for TTA yet. The real SKAT-level bust-out at this point would be “Let It Go”, which hasn’t been played since 2004, an even longer drought than “SKAT” suffered, and even that last appearance was at a limited-engagement show as part of an all-fan-request setlist. Its last legitimate play before that was April 2003.

If String Cheese can pick up the pace on archival releases and not put five years between Volume 2 and Volume 3 in the Rhythm of the Road series, this might be a good way to lavish attention on some neglected songs. Further 2001 releases, for example, could put long-retired gems like “Inspiration” and “Want” in the spotlight. Go a little farther back—say, the late 90s—and you might end up unearthing something like “California Rain”. I think SCI is onto something here, having perhaps found a way to organically reintroduce old material to current rotation, resulting in sets that are more eclectic than ever in the band’s history.

Unlike SKORT’s quick transformation into “Shantytown”, SKAT’s had the name long enough that a lot of old-timers probably won’t ever be able to call it anything else. Not that Billy seems to mind. But whatever it’s called, it’s good to see it again. Now let’s work on getting “Latinissmo” back.

[1] “Bust out” is a phrase that has become a bone of contention among many jam fans. It means to play a song that hasn’t been played in a long time, usually many years. Jam fans tend to complain about this term without offering many viable alternatives. Of those I’ve heard, my favorite is “dust off”.

[2] Despite seeming like a temporary placeholder that stuck, Billy says “Xai Xai” was always intended to be SKAT’s title, but that he was “reticent to unearth such a special name”.

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