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.
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.