Ska music, that peculiar and danceable predecessor of reggae that combines calypso, R&B, swing, and boogie-woogie, has proven a remarkably durable musical genre. First created in Jamaica, the infectious dance music has seen three distinct eras of popularity in three different countries. The first, in Jamaica, gave us the Skatalites and their remarkable Studio One sessions as well as other seminal artists like Desmond Dekker. The second took place in England in the late ‘70s and brought about the Two Tone movement, spearheaded by bands like the Specials, the Selecter, the Bodysnatchers, and the English Beat. The most recent wave of ska has finally brought the genre to the United States where the Slackers, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, (early) No Doubt, and the Rock Steady 7 have all given the ska beat new life.
The second wave of ska produced some good bands and some great music, the third wave fewer, but if you want to really hear the music played with respect for its deepest roots, you need to go to the source, and that is undoubtedly the Skatalites. Reunited in 1983, the band has ever since toured the world bringing ska’s happy beat and message of unity to Japan, South America, and all points in between. The band has continued to tour and record ever since, an their influence is remarkable when one considers that the original edition of the band only lasted for 14 months in the 1960s before breaking up into two separate units and going their own ways.
So, what does this veteran band have to offer today’s listeners on its latest CD, From Paris With Love? A lot. The band is more musically sophisticated than many of its contemporaries were and than pretty much all of its present day imitators are. While the second wave, Two Tone ska bands were well aware of the history of the music and such originators as the Skatalites and Prince Buster, most American third wave ska bands are only vaguely aware of the fact that this music is a blending of Jamaican calypso and mento music along with American boogie-woogie, swing, and jazz. As a result, most current “ska” music is one dimensional and cartoonish, indeed bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and No Doubt are much more pop bands with some ska influence that has faded as they’ve achieved more mainstream popularity. The Skatalites’ current front line of tenor man Cedric Brooks, trombonist Will Clark, alto sax player Lester Sterling, and trumpet player Dizzy Moore have all honed their chops on jazz, soul, and R&B.
Brooks, Clark, and Sterling all cut their teeth at the Alpha Cottage School, a military-style school run by Roman Catholic nuns that developed a large number of excellent musicians. Without Alpha School, it is doubtful whether there would have been such an explosion of great music in Jamaica in the 1960s, music that offered joyful self-expression and a national identity to the newly independent country. The horn section players offer solos that show their wide musical education but are never self-indulgent or uninteresting, and the whole group swings in a way that defies explanation.
From Paris With Love was recorded live in the studio between tours. “It’s basically a live recording,” says manager and keyboard player Ken Stewart, the youngest member of the revitalized band. “We arrived in Paris on Christmas Day and did 15 tracks in 16 hours. In the studio, we turned off all the processors and we didn’t do any overdubs.” That gives the recording a warm analog sound and makes it feel like vintage ska even though it was recorded in a state of the art studio. The set is a mixture of classic material like “Guns of Navarone” with excellent new material like “Lester’s Mood”. Particularly interesting is the playing of Cedric Brooks, in whose playing can be heard the influence of Sonny Rollins, and Will Clark, who is not Jamaican and fills the spot of original trombonist Don Drummond. Dizzy Moore, an original member of the band, offers the standout composition “Glory to the Sound”, which has a bluesy quality and sounds a bit like something you might hear at a New Orleans jazz funeral. This kind of performance is head and shoulders above anything being done by most bands that fly the ska flag.
If you are a Skatalites fan, you may or may not consider the current lineup to be on a par with the original, classic band, but that’s nitpicking. This group has a lot to offer listeners, and they’ve done nothing to compromise the ska band sound they originated. If you are a hapless Bosstones fan who’s never heard (or heard of) the Skatalites, then this album may be a good place to begin to learn about the history of ska, rock steady, and reggae as well as of this remarkable band. There are some great compilations of the original group out there, but this documents the group as it stands today and proves that they can still offer a hot skankin’ sound with the best of them.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.