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Ska Rah Rah

Richard Laird

Ska High: Jamaica's Skatalites take a breaker on the waterfront.

Reggae's roots owe a deep debt to the Skatalites

By Nicky Baxter

PRIOR TO SKA'S advent at the start of the 1960s, Jamaican musicians were cooking up a tropical version of Dizzy Gillespie's hot bop. That state of affairs changed overnight when the eccentric but brilliant trombonist Don Drummond muscled in on the scene sometime around 1962. A year later, Drummond, with considerable assistance from tenorman Tommy McCook, wound up fronting what would become Jamaica's premier instrumental unit, the Skatalites. The man at the control board was the dodgy but seminal producer Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. Besides their single-handed construction of ska, the Skatalites also influenced rocksteady and reggae's rhythmic roots.

Reportedly McCook's cunning pun on the Russian rocket blast-off in 1963, the band's name is inextricably twined into African Diasporan music history. And for very good reason. Originally a nontet, the Skatalites represented Jamaica's musical elite. Though the initial lineup didn't last very long--a tragically short two years--its impact has by far outlived the original group. More than three decades have passed, but, one way and another, the Skatalites survive.

On the unit's latest album, Skamania (Shanachie), the Skatalites are augmented by stellar jazz players trombonist Steve Turre, alto player Bobby Watson and percussionist Larry McDonald. Skamania doesn't break any new ground, but it does reaffirm the lasting legacy of the band and idiom. The tunes sport sturdy herky-jerky backbeats over which the unit crafts woozy but finely wrought solos. "Skalloween," and "Phoenix City" are unbridled party tracks aimed straight at the feet. "Trip to Mars" is pure fantasy-island fare; you'll definitely want to go there once the song starts.

The Skatalites play with Slow Gherkin Monday (June 17) at 9pm at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15.50 adv./$17 door. (408/454-0600).

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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