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Skatalites: The Best Music You Never Heard

José Orozco By

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You might love the Skatalites without knowing who they are—the founders of ska, a kind of Jamaican jazz. They backed Bob Marley and Desmond Decker before they became the Skatalites. Born from mainly African-American influences, the band has gone on to pioneer the ska sound. Keyboardist/manager Ken Stewart and drummer Lloyd Knibb talked to All About Jazz recently when the band came to Caracas on its forty-year anniversary tour.

All About Jazz: This tour celebrates forty years of the Skatalites. How has the band been able to stick together for so long?

Ken Stewart: [It was apart] for almost twenty [years] from '65 to '83. The first reunion as Skatalites was in 1983. The Police and the English Beat were coming back with this music, so they wanted to get on board. It was precisely at that time when the demand for horn players was extremely diminished because the computer stuff was coming in. The keyboards and the synthesizers were replacing the horn players. That's when Tommy [McCook] decided to move up to the United States and he wasn't necessarily looking to bring the rest of the Skatalites with him. But when he came up to the states he found out that he just wasn't able to make it without some more of the originals to make good money and to really call it the Skatalites. Not too many people knew about the Skatalites to hire just one member. "Where's the rest of them?"

AAJ: Tell me about the milieu the band grew out of.

KS: If you look on the original Wailing Wailers album, it was Soul Brothers that backed. That was before the Skatalites formed. That was '63.

AAJ: They backed Bob Marley?

KS: Right. One of the tunes on that album was "Simmer Down." When they broke up, after that came Soul Vendors. It was around that same time that rocksteady was transitioning from ska. They just basically wanted to slow the beat down. The summers were getting particularly hot, people were getting a little older, so the dance pace was slowed down a little bit.

There were two camps, basically. Tommy McCook and the Supersonics moved over to Duke Reid's Treasure Isle studio and then the Soul Vendors, which turned into Sound Dimension as reggae came in, that was with the Studio One camp. Between the Soul Vendors and the Sound Dimension, that's the backing band for most of the reggae classics that we know and love.

AAJ: Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Decker?

KS: Most of that affiliation goes back to ska days. There wasn't so much coming into rocksteady. The Soul Vendors were backing Alton Ellis, Ken Booth, Delroy Wilson sometimes.

AAJ: What's the difference among ska, reggae, and rocksteady?

KS: It's really just the same rhythm slowed down. The way the bass plays -[Lloyd] Brevett was talking about the walking bass in the ska -that's basically the difference between ska and rocksteady. Rocksteady was when the bass line started to get more repetitive, and the choral structures were less complicated and slower. As reggae came in, it's just the same thing, basically. Electric instruments were coming in. The acoustic bass was kind of out because the bass lines were so fast that they got kind of muddy with a string bass. So the electric bass was a lot clearer and, of course, more of a punch.

AAJ: Tell me about the odd song titles. Things like "Lee Harvey Oswald" and "Fidel Castro."

KS: They were looking for things to name the songs. The Skatalites themselves were coming up with the arrangement, or the tune, the cover renamed in something else in ska, or the original tunes, especially the Don Drummond tunes. It was mostly Coxsone [Dodd] who was picking these names from current events of the day.

AAJ: Jamaican youth have gone over to hip hop and dancehall in droves. Why hasn't ska been able to stay popular among young Jamaicans?

KS: It's what became popular, basically. The accent was on all this computer stuff. The DJ thing started up with guys like Leroy [Smart] to the roots rhythms. Because of the invention of the drum machines and the synthesizers, it was just easier and more cost effective. There were a lot of different reasons. You could go into the studio with one or two guys that know what they're doing and you don't need a whole band. It was what was being put out, so it was basically all they were exposed to.

AAJ: Are the older folks still listening to ska?

KS: Yeah, that's who we see mostly when we go down to play there. We haven't played there in four years. Around Christmas and during the independence celebrations, that's when you hear most of the oldies shows. But other than that, most of the people performing live are dancehall acts.

AAJ: A lot of American hip hop performers have grown up on people like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and even though the music they do is very different, there's an influence there. Is the same thing happening with Jamaican hip hop and dancehall performers where they owe a debt to early ska and reggae, or are they really that focused on Afro-American music?

KS: Yeah, I think the focus is in the American rap and hip hop, where most of this dancehall stuff get a lot of their ideas. Within the past few years you hear some Skatalites melody or some Skatalites bass lines, or some kind of sampled piece of a Skatalites tune. They're aware of it. The actual listeners, I don't know. If you're involved with music, growing up in Jamaica, you knew most of the influences.

AAJ: A lot of people don't know ska's context. In fact, it was heavily influenced by African-American music.

KS: Basically, the musicians in Jamaica, most of their exposure to music was purely radio. They didn't have access to even stereo players to play a record. In the beginning it was radio stations from Miami and New Orleans playing early rock and roll, boogie woogie blues. [Saxophonist] Lester [Sterling] told me that Roots Randolph was one of the biggest influences. It's that boogie woogie shuffle and it's that accent on the off beat that started getting popular. Most of these Skatalites guys were playing big band stock arrangements. So the format for the Skatalites tunes was very much jazz. You can have a theme at the beginning that was recognizable, then you break into the soloing, then you return back to the themes.

AAJ: Just like some call salsa Latin American jazz, ska is Jamaican jazz.

KS: A lot of people call it Jamaican jazz.

A short interview with original Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb

All About Jazz: What was the Jamaican music scene like in the '60s?

Lloyd Knibb: When the music started, I was in Montego Bay. I came to Kingston. Coxsone asked to change the beat. I changed the beat to second and fourth -ska beat.

AAJ: It was an amazing moment in music history. How did it come about?

LK: When we just started out, I was doing it for sound system, playing American music. Coxsone generally went to Miami or New York and would bring back these tunes. That's how it started, listening to different bands, and trying to sing that way until it changes.

AAJ: What was it like playing with legends like Bob Marley and Desmond Decker?

LK: It was just the same thing. Everyone had to learn from us. When the solo is finished, you must know where to come in. They couldn't get that.

AAJ: Why was that? Why didn't they know when to come in?

LK: They didn't understand about timing, eight-bar, twelve-bar, four-bar. We'd been playing jazz music at hotels before this thing started. Latin bands, swing, waltz, boleros.

AAJ: With dancehall and hip hop so big in Jamaica, how is ska seen?

LK: On weekends, some stations play Skatalites music. But the younger generation doesn't know anything about the Skatalites. Because if you listen to Bob Marley and Toots, we recorded that.

AAJ: They might know your music, but not know it's you.

LK: That's why we got the name Skatalites. People hearing the music over the radio didn't know who was playing it.

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