The Skatalites | Cervantes | Denver, CO | 3/20/2013 | Review
When the opportunity to see one of the catalysts of a certain genre of music presents itself, the general inclination is to get up off of the couch and learn something while boogying down. Considered to be amongst the earliest purveyors of the ska movement born out of Jamaica, and directly influencing what has come to be known as reggae, The Skatalites are a treat of a band led by the sole surviving founder, Lester “Ska” Sterling on alto saxophone. Now seventy seven, Lester has seen the band go through many changes, losses and differences over the years, but the spirit that rose out of Jamaica in the early sixties is still alive and well and was found at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom Wednesday night.
Boasting eight members, and featuring the lovely vocals of Doreen Shaffer on multiple songs, the live performance is an exhilarating ride through the history of music. With ska finding its roots in American R&B, calypso and Caribbean music, it became a mainstay in Jamaican culture during the early sixties. The Skatalites helped to hone this new craft of music, playing with yet to be legendary artists during that period such as Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert, and they no doubt helped to influence those artists on their respective adventures into the realm of reggae.
Joining Sterling on stage are Zem Audu on tenor sax, Andrae Murchison on trombone, Kevin Batchelor on trumpet, Val Douglas on bass, Natty Frenchy laying down skank guitar, Cameron Greenlee reinforcing the off-beat skank guitar on keyboards and organ, and Trevor Thompson on drums. This core unit combines to illustrate a living, breathing representation of what ska meant to Jamaican culture when it first arose, and how its traces are still finding their way into modern music. With Trevor and Val supplying the beat and never-ending bass line, and Frenchy and Cameron leading the way with the skank rhythm, the horn section is free to glide above the rest and solo to their hearts’ content. While Sterling is the natural leader of the band, given his age and founder status, the rest of the band isn’t far behind, and the horn section’s ability to seamlessly swap solos and blend with one another is really a treat. While reggae abandoned the overarching horn section in favor of more drum, bass, guitar and vocals, ska is represented by horns, and still is to this day, evident by the punk-ska revival of the eighties and nineties in American mainstream music.
Supporting act Koffi Togi Vibe was banging his drum and uniting the crowd in the spirit of his Western African home as I walked through the doors of Cervantes. Boasting a ten member lineup on every instrument one can conjure in a blend of West African and American music, Koffi is a true showman and activist, seen not only through his command over the crowd and their gyrations, but in his missionary trips back to his home nation of Togo to lead groups of curious travelers. He is a modern day messiah, preaching the music of his country and finding creative outlets that let it join in the modern web of musical growth. Similar to Femi and Fela Kuti in his passion for music and country, Koffi is a driving force of fusion music in the Denver scene, and can be found teaching dance and drums in addition to his multitalented band of polyrhythmic instrumentalists.
Local Denver boys Judge Roughneck have been holding down the essence of ska and reggae over the years and took over the stage when Koffi and his gang retreated. While Koffi ignited an international flare with his set, Byron Shaw and Judge Roughneck brought out a ska fueled boogie to get things going. More of your traditional reggae/ska band than the West African educational and uplifting experience of Koffi, these boys played the part, and dressed it too. With a slew of suit jackets, cabby hats, fedoras and a chain wallet hanging low, these guys looked more like the late eighties and early nineties ska revival artists, and they justified the initial glimpse. With skank guitar, bass, drums, Hammond organ, saxophone, trumpet and trombone, these guys essentially had the same instruments on stage that we would soon see the Skatalites with, but they added their own modern element to their music. Covering songs like the Musical Youth classic “Pass the Dutchie,” Judge Roughneck brought out a feel good party sound that had the crowd swaying and warmed up for the blast from the past vibes of The Skatalites.
During the set break the stage was cleared in the middle to make room for a line of horns. Drummer Trevor Thompson seemed to be tuning his kit for what seemed to be the entire set break, and one by one the boys made their way onstage. With a large gap in age between some of the players, it was no surprise to see bassist Val Douglas sitting on a stool for the evening. When Lester started his slow shuffle across the stage, alto sax in hand, the crowd boomed and made their way up front to get a picture of the legendary ska pioneer. Wearing black sweats, a black shirt, white cross trainers, a plaid fedora and cataract black sunglasses, Lester looked like a mix of an old roadie with a stylistic swagger that he didn’t let the years alter. I would say he’s pretty much the man, and at this point is capable of donning whatever he wants without being judged.
With a countdown and chant of “Freedom,” the band kicked it off quick with the skank guitar and keys chiming in between the off notes from the drums and bass, and Lester letting the sax out of the bag. The four-person horn section stood side by side down stage along the front, and alternated solos throughout their set. The ability feel out your musical companions comes with a certain amount of comfort playing with one another, and you could tell these guys were on. While Lester certainly coordinated songs and allowed the horns a breather for a guitar solo every now and again, the horn section knew what they were doing, and breezed through song after song.
The first number I recognized was “Music is My Occupation,” which features a distinctive build from the trumpet that runs along the lines of the Cash Family’s “Ring of Fire.” The Skatalites are well known for fusing American pop and R&B songs into their repertoire, as they did with the famous ska rendition of “Guns of Navarone,” which is still a staple of their live performances and is one of the first instrumentals you’ll come across when digging into their catalogue. The version they played at Cervantes even included a little teaser jam on “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Other songs the Skatalites graced with their rhythmic ska throughout the set included the James Bond 007 theme, and my personal favorite, “California Sun,” the surf guitar and organ laced pop song by sixties band The Rivieras. Before both of these numbers, which were purely instrumental, Lester acknowledged the impact that American pop music and other genres had on their advancement of ska as the radio waves broadcasted down into Jamaica.
This theme continued as they welcomed Doreen Shaffer, whom Lester called “the Queen of Reggae,” to the stage to tackle the 1964 Millie Small radio classic, “My Boy Lollipop.” This was the first song to feature full on vocals, and Doreen hasn’t missed a step over the years. Seeing the covers that they choose and the way they add their distinctive ska sound is intriguing not just because of the changes that they make to the songs, but the fact that these songs were trickling into Jamaica and were completely new to members of the original Skatalites. Doreen, who first played with The Skatalites in 1964 adds an entirely different dimension to the band with her distinctive voice and take on pop melodies that flourished when they made their way to the islands.
The Skatalites, while not the same band they were in the early sixties or even the generations between then and now, embody the spirit and music of Jamaica. The early breeds of ska that were birthed in Jamaica found influence in many corners of the world, and in turn influenced generations to come. While modern ska still holds true to some of the elements The Skatalites helped bring to the public’s ears, they are in a league of their own for the creativity and approach to the music that stirred an entire country and helped bring about reggae. If you have a chance, go see Lester and the boys while they’re still touring, because he is holding the torch that symbolizes the origins of ska and there aren’t many acts out there that can claim the same thing.