Skatalite of love: Kingston's venerable standard-bearers have presided over every major ska wave of the last four decades.
Stand Down, Rudy
The Skatalites return to show their offspring how it's done
By Paul Davis
Straight out of Kingston, Jamaica, the Skatalites are a sufficiently epochal act that naming them the real deal would be almost facetious. While the band can't claim to have invented the genre--ska was already a growing concern in their native Jamaica by the time the Skatalites formed in 1964--they have long established themselves as the venerable standard and soul-bearers for the genre, presiding over every major ska wave that has come and gone in the four decades since.
Many members have cycled through the Skatalites in its four decades of existence, as the group at times has resembled more of a loose collective than a traditional band lineup. In their early days, the collective served as a backing band for the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and countless other reggae and ska icons. But if one thing remains constant with the group, it is the snare-drum-tight arrangements the ensemble has become recognized for, a rhythmic chug that has persisted through decades of ebbing and flowing interest.
The Skatalites remain one of the rare acts that can retain their essence through countless personnel changes, and there have been plenty of those--in the group's current incarnation, only drummer Lloyd Knibb and trumpet/sax man Lester Sterling remain from the original lineup (iconic saxophonist Roland Alphonso passed away in 1998). But with an emphasis on collective collaboration, the individual members are less crucial than the group as a whole. The Skatalites' collective philosophy is typified by the recording process behind their new record On the Right Track, the group's first original set in seven years.
According to the band's keyboard player and manager Ken Stewart (who is still a relative newcomer to the group, having joined in 1989), On the Right Track was recorded and written in a manner similar to those early '60s Skatalites records that fetch enormous sums on eBay nowadays. Songs were composed on the fly, and recordings were done in-between, before and after sets, Stewart explains. "We didn't have any material, so we had to scramble," he says. "Each member of the band composed a track, so 11 of the 12 songs are originals."
For a band that once spent innumerable hours in the studio, seven years is a long time to go without recording, even if in the Skatalites' case it's a relatively short period of their history. According to Stewart, the band has found that the current sales climate for recorded music has turned so sour that constant touring makes more economic sense. "We don't have the opportunity or the time," he says. "The market is down for recorded music, so we weren't interested in investing all that money until our label came along and offered us this deal."
Despite some founding members passing away and the rapidly advancing age of many of the Skatalite's long-term members, the band continues to stay on the road an impressive bulk of the year, turning out the same inimitable and fiery jazz, R&B and reggae concoction that appeared on its early records and remaining undeniably alive and vital on On the Right Track. It's a brew that has long established the group as one of the seminal worldwide bands of the second half of the 20th century, and while the '70s ska revivalists in bands such as the English Beat as well as the third-wave of American ska-punk may name-check many, the Skatalites remain a constant fixture at the top of lists of influences.
Stewart isn't a huge fan of the third-wave punk-ska revival, stating that he "feels that the really fast punk ska loses some of the soul." Even so, he notes, the founding and long-term Skatalites members take enormous pride in the considerable ska legacy they helped establish and continue to preside over. Traveling across the world, they find that legacy remains as vital and relevant today as it did decades ago.
"They say imitation is the highest form of praise," says Stewart. "Well, every country we go to we meet people playing their version of the Skatalites. We're flattered by this. ... We go to Russia and they know more about the Skatalites than even the Americans do."
The Skatalites perform Wednesday, March 21, at 9pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20. For more information, call 831.479.1854.
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