Music

The Skatalites: Walk with Me

What most people know today as reggae music is really just ska which, tired from the hot Jamaica sunshine, decided to chill out and take a breather.


The Skatalites

Walk with Me

Label: Wrasse
US Release Date: 2012-05-14
UK Release Date: 2012-05-14
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It’s easy to forget that there’s a lot to a ska record. Focusing on the bones of it might mean you miss the meat entirely, but just a few minutes into the Skatalites Walk with Me had me sore from pigeon-necking. That signature ska rhythm is so constant and satisfyingly forthright that the stellar musicianship becomes almost easy to overlook -- but you shouldn’t. Far from being a small band of contributors, the Skatalites at this point have a bit of a rotating roster of contributors, all of whom are incredible talents in their own right. Some of them came up in the same scene as a little fellow you might have heard of named Bob Marley.

What most people know today as reggae music is really just ska which, tired from the hot Jamaica sunshine, decided to chill out and take a breather. While that pacing seems to have had a much more significant and direct influence on popular culture at least in the west, ska in its original form is alive and well. Nowhere is that more apparent than on beautiful recordings like this one and it seems to have come around just in time to remind us what good sounds like.

With crystal-clear production and consistent sound quality from end to end, the tracks on this record kick out a steady groove giving equal footing to the live bass, horn sections and keys. The horns in particular are more toned-down than I might have expected and that actually works really well to keep the party moving. While horns might rock a live show some engineers forget that the same bombast can easily crush the rhythm under its weight on a studio recording. Care has been taken here to ensure balance.

Opening track “Desert Ska” is a pensive little instrumental number that saunters around taunting expectations, introducing the record with a certain subdued humility. “Lalibeta” follows with a blues-influenced intro which quickly drops into a full on stepper. Lloydd Knibb takes some liberties with the hi hat on this one introducing some double-time hits which seem to contrast the lethargic, noodling guitar solo. It’s a joy to switch attention back and forth between the drums and the guitar as though they were competing for it.

“Hot Flash” tones things down and allows us to focus on the bass guitar. I found myself actually wishing that it could be taken up a notch this once just because it was such a heavy groove line. Rather than coming up to meet the melody the band chooses instead to simply remain quietly in the background while the nod rolls along.

“Love is the Way” is the last song that Knibb recorded on, and how fitting. Doreen Shaffer’s easy vocal work gives you the impression she’s done this a thousand times and she probably has. There’s a classic and familiar tone to her sound that evokes images of small parties rather than large arenas -- as though the song might have emerged spontaneously at a jam session among her closest friends. It’s an unpretentious and welcoming sound, celebrating the roots of Jamaican music without being overbearing or exploitative.

“Piece for Peace” takes an adventurous walk up and down the musical scale while guitar licks ring independently in the background. For the first time on the record, we break out of the traditional straight-ahead march and start meandering as though one too many dark and stormys deep with Jamaican rum may be finally taking their toll. It plays fast and loose with structure but never without losing sight of home. In a similar manner “Little Theresa” employs a single pitched-up horn to dance quickly around a light and pleasant melody that’s playful and whimsical while “King Solomon” takes things a little too seriously.

The album closes on a dub version of “Lalibela”. While it’s enjoyable I am not sure it was particularly necessary. It’s out of place among the more organic sounds of the rest of the record and is only a marginally more rapid version of the original with some reverb and echos thrown in for effect. Adding an echo here and there on a snare doesn’t necessarily make for a groundbreaking addition to the rest of the record but given the quality already it’s easily overlooked merely as bonus material.

It’s sad to say that this was the final record drummer Lloydd Knibb would ever make. He didn’t live long enough to see it hit the shelves but I suspect the man who influenced so many others who came after him would have been proud to hear the result.

7

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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