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Skatalites: The Best Music You Never Heard

José Orozco By

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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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