Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Come Back to the Island

By Chris Herrington

JUNE 19, 2000:  Except for maybe the Sex Pistols, who launched the punk movement before burning out in just over two years, the Jamaican supergroup the Skatalites may boast a larger impact on the global music scene in a shorter time than any other band. Playing at the Hi-Tone Cafe this Saturday, the band is on its 35th anniversary tour, but in its original formation, the group lasted a mere 14 months -- recording literally hundreds of sides and giving birth to all of modern Jamaican music and, by extension, many cultural explosions in England and the States.

Formed in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1964, the nine-piece instrumental group featured trombone player Don Drummond, the first Rastafarian culture hero and the man usually credited with inventing ska, the first strand of modern Jamaican music. When they hear the term "ska," most Americans probably think of third-wave, suburban ska-core bands like Reel Big Fish; The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones; and No Doubt (before their successful New Wave makeover). But the original Jamaican musical form, probably best known by the astounding, soul-based records of Toots and the Maytals, has little sonic connection to an American hybrid that might be best described as watered-down punk with horns.

Emerging in the early Sixties, seemingly as a soundtrack for, or expression of, Jamaica's new-found independence from Great Britain, ska was the first significant form of homegrown popular music to emanate from the island, in turn giving birth to one of the century's greatest musical explosions -- rock-steady to reggae, dub to dancehall. With its unique jumpy backbeat, R&B horn charts that would strike a chord with any Stax fan, jazz-style improvisation,and pop melodies, ska was an irresistible musical amalgam. A truly Pan-African music that began as a melding of pre-existing Jamaican big-band jazz and the New Orleans R&B (especially Fats Domino) that invaded the island via radio, ska eventually made room for Afro-Cuban influences, as well as that of American (and British -- the Skatalites often covered their more famous contemporaries, The Beatles) rock-and-roll.

The Skatalites were -- much more than any other musicians -- the instigators of this movement. As the house band at producer Coxsone Dodd's Studio One -- itself considered the physical birthplace of modern Jamaican music -- the Skatalites backed up virtually every major vocalist of the era, including Justin Hines, the Maytals, the Heptones, and a young Bob Marley. The band also produced several albums and what is estimated as hundreds of instrumental 45s under its own name. Think of them, roughly, as a Jamaican equivalent of our own Booker T. and the MGs.

Ska itself was relatively short-lived as the dominant strain of Jamaican music, giving way in the mid-Sixties, at roughly the same time as the original Skatalites called it quits, to a slower, transitional variation called rock-steady, and then to an even slower version called roots-reggae. Reggae, as we know it, developed soon after, with the bass getting pushed in front of the loping beat. By the mid-Seventies, with the great reggae film The Harder They Come emerging as a cult hit and Bob Marley emerging as a star, Jamaican music was an international force.

After that, the music continued to develop, spawning more modern types, like dub and dancehall, and even indirectly giving birth to American hip-hop, which is a descendant of the Jamaican sound system and toasting tradition. All of this is directly traceable to the Skatalites. And that doesn't even take into account the various ska revivals that have taken place around the globe in the last 20 years, most significantly the Two-Tone movement in Britain in the early Eighties, with bands like the Specials, Madness, and the English Beat.

The original Skatalites played their final show in 1965, with the mentally disturbed Drummond subsequently getting jailed and institutionalized for the murder of his girlfriend. They then splintered off into other groups, most notably with tenor saxophonists Tommy McCook (said to be the most prolific of Jamaican musicians) and Roland Alphonso leading the Supersonics and Soul Vendors, respectively. The band reunited in 1983 (sans Drummond, who died in an asylum in 1969) to play the Reggae Sunsplash Festival and finally regrouped for good in the U.S. in the late Eighties. In the intervening years, the band embarked on a 30th anniversary world tour in 1994-1995 and released the Grammy-nominated albums Hi Bop Ska and Greetings From Skamania in 1994 and 1996, respectively.

The 1998 deaths of McCook and Alphonso leave the current incarnation of the group with three original members: drummer Lloyd Knibbs, bassist Lloyd Brevett, and alto sax player Lester Sterling. Doreen Schaffer, who recorded with the band during their original mid-Sixties run, has joined the group as vocalist.

The graceful, energetic sound of the original Skatalites is probably best heard on Foundation Ska, a two-disc anthology released on Heartbeat in 1997, which captures 32, mostly instrumental tracks from the band's Studio One run. But if good reports from the band's last trip through town are any indication, this unique chance to see living legends in the flesh might be the best bet of all.

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