Ska pioneers The Skatalites promise to bring the party to Hong Kong
Members of the Jamaican band, founded in 1964, talk about how they’ve overcome line-up changes, clashing egos and the ska genre’s rise and decline
Watching an important and influential band perform live usually involves a degree of chin-stroking reverence, and perhaps more appreciation than actual enjoyment. There’s no danger of that with The Skatalites.
The Jamaican band basically invented ska, the genre that emerged in the 1960s and began the lineage that led to rocksteady, reggae, dub, dancehall and raggamuffin – but go and see them live and what you will have is a massive party.
“Every song has its own energy,” says the band’s keyboard player and manager, Ken Stewart. “People start moving from the first note, and they don’t stop. Even if we play for two hours, they still want more.”
That was certainly the effect the band had when they rocked the main stage at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap open-air music festival last year, and there’s another chance to see them in Hong Kong when they play at the Hang Out centre in Sai Wan Ho on October 4.
The Skatalites formed in Jamaica in 1964; their name reflects the widespread fascination with space travel at the time. The 10-member band was a kind of supergroup of Jamaica’s finest musicians, including saxophonists Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook, bassist Lloyd Brevett and drummer Lloyd Knibb, assisted by legendary producer Coxsone Dodd. Their reputation certainly went before them: so many people turned up to watch their first rehearsal that they decided to charge admission and turn it into a gig.
Ska was born when Trinidadian calypso and the similar Jamaican style mento met American R&B and jazz; together with Jamaica’s sound system culture, it was a sound that would shape the whole of modern music. Knibb and Brevett pioneered the offbeat drum pattern and bass skank that came to define the genre, and the many styles of Jamaican music that followed, mostly notably reggae.
As the backing band at Kingston’s legendary Studio One record label and recording studio, which was at the vanguard of most of those styles, they played with everyone who’s anyone in Jamaican music, including The Wailers, featuring reggae legends Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, as well as Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Lee Perry and the recently deceased Prince Buster. These collaborations produced ska classics such as Simmer Down and Guns of Navarone.
But those early glory days didn’t last long: 14 months, in fact, when trombonist Don Drummond, who suffered from mental health issues, murdered his girlfriend, singer and dancer Marguerita Mahfood, and was incarcerated in a prison for the criminally insane. The band split into two new groups, repeatedly tried to re-form and eventually got back together in 1983, but tensions between band members that had always been present – a musical and philosophical split between rastas and jazzmen, but also major personality clashes – kept rising to the surface.
And yet this influential but combustible band, who were originally together for just more than a year and split up in circumstances that looked pretty terminal, are still going over half a century later. Of all the potential candidates for longevity, The Skatalites looked like the longest of long shots.
“It’s certainly survived a lot of transgressions, changes and renovations, and it keeps going,” says Stewart. So numerous have the line-up changes been, in fact, that they once turned up to gig in Russia to find the venue had posted a diagram showing all the different members and incarnations of the band. “Of the original 10 band members, only retired trumpeter and saxophonist Lester Sterling is still with us.”
Vocalist Doreen Shaffer, who has performed with them almost since the start, is still part of the band, but the other nine current Skatalites joined later.
“People say: are you a Skatalites tribute band?” says Stewart. “But every one of us was personally invited to join by an original member. The music still holds its integrity.”
Stewart himself is a big reason the band are still going. He joined in 1988 purely as a musician, having come from a blues, rock and jazz background, but took over as manager in 2000 because they weren’t playing as many gigs as their reputation and fan base deserved.
“When I first joined the band we were playing about 10 gigs a year,” he says. “I was puzzled about that and decided to do something about it. We didn’t have a label, and we didn’t have any funding or anything.”
It really hit home how popular the band were when they supported Bunny Wailer on tour in the 1990s. “I saw the support. There were 10-year-old kids in porkpie hats and black-and-white suits. I thought: this could run.”
One of the advantage of the new line-up is that there are fewer personality clashes these days, but Stewart says the animosity between the original line-up eventually simmered down. “By the time I joined, the egos had diminished. People got on OK as long as things were going well. I was very much welcomed, but it was always taxing my abilities, and I was nervous about that.”
Any shortage of gigs has most certainly been remedied: the band’s current tour takes in 20 dates in the US before their trip to Hong Kong, followed by three in Japan, four in Mexico, one in France and six in the UK, all before the end of November.
Clockenflap was their first trip to Hong Kong, but the joys of touring meant they didn’t get to see much of the city. “It was very nice,” says Stewart, “but we travelled 20 hours to get there, spent 40 hours there and then spent 20 hours travelling back.” He adds that he’s looking forward to a slightly long stay here this time.
One impact of The Skatalites’ phenomenal longevity is that they’ve often found themselves playing alongside bands directly influenced by them, particularly during the so-called third wave of ska in the early ‘90s. But while ska’s new-found popularity during that era might have aided the band’s resurgence, they have well and truly outlasted it. “As musical trends do, it burst in the late 1990s,” says Stewart. “But we’re still going, and that’s pretty amazing.”
The Skatalites, Oct 4, 9pm, Hang Out, 2 Holy Cross Path, Sai Wan Ho, HK$450 (advance), HK$520 (door). Inquiries: hkirsf.com/