Interview with The Skatalites’ Ken Stewart
4/20 in the 413
By Cheli Mennella & Dave Noonan
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Legal weed in the 413 is super dope. Having spread their legendary sound to music lovers around the world for over 50 years, The Skatalites touched down in Greenfield to bless up Green Fest.
Formed in 1964, a collective of wildly talented players and songwriters, The Skatalites were together for 14 months before they disbanded in 1965, a brief but prolific tenure that produced thousands of recordings. The band reformed in 1983 and blasted off on tours across the globe. They continued to create new music, amassing an impressive discography of more than 40 albums. Their most recent release, Platinum Ska, continues the music making tradition they started in Jamaica decades ago, and features tracks with original members – drummer Lloyd Knibb, alto sax player Lester Sterling, and vocalist Doreen Shaffer.
The birth of ska reaches back to the 1950’s and 60’s, when many Jamaicans were listening to radios that could pick up signals from Southern Florida radio stations. They heard American R&B artists like Chubby Checker and Fats Domino in real time, instead of having to wait for records to arrive with migrant farm workers. The Jamaican recording industry sprung up to emulate and record these R&B sounds. Producers cut 45’s, infusing the tunes with Jamaican artists, which stirred up dancehalls and a ground-breaking idea.
Jamaican record producer Coxsone Dodd of Studio One, session guitarist/musical genius Ernest Ranglin, and trailblazing drummer Lloyd Knibb got together to work on transitioning the sound to a purely Jamaican style. They recognized the need to make the music their own instead of making an imitation. Knibb was a rhythm master, and his brilliant understanding and bold creativity led to a fundamental shift away from R&B. By altering the beat and tempo to a Jamaican sensibility he forged a red-hot sound that helped create a new genre of music.
It was called ska, the name derived from the alliteration of R&B piano chords. The ska sound had other influences, such as the horn driven melodies of the Big Band era, like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, which were adapted to Jamaican purposes, and the piano style of Rosco Gordon, an American Blues singer and songwriter. The Rasta movement gave musicians an opportunity to explore the new music at gatherings, where players could freely express themselves, unbound by the stuffy Big Band protocol.
The upbeat energy of ska was amplified by the Jamaican Independence of 1962, and the joy and verve of a newly liberated country, the result of a perfect confluence of positivity. Mix this unifying power with an infectious new beat and combine it with smoldering talent and you get The Skatalites.
The Skatalites were the hottest musicians of the time: Don Drummond on trombone, Tommy McCook on tenor sax, Rolando Alphonso on tenor sax, Lester Sterling on alto sax, Doug Moore on trumpet, Jerome “Jah Jerry” Haynes on guitar, Jackie Mittoo on keyboards, Lloyd Brevett on bass, and Lloyd Knibb on drums. Together they formed a supergroup with such potent alchemy that they could flesh out tunes with lightning speed, meshing R&B, Jazz, Big Band, Mento, Calypso, and Afro-Cuban styles into a music-defining genre that later birthed the reggae one-drop, rock steady, and dub, as well as two-tone and third wave ska. Its reach stretches even further into the branches of punk and hip-hop.
There is a resiliency embedded in The Skatalites’ music that has enabled the band to withstand the tests of time – the loss of original founding members, changes in line-up, shifting socio-political climates, and industry competition. Despite the challenges, The Skatalites survive, defying the odds, unstoppable as their infectious rhythms.
We talked with Ken Stewart, The Skatalites’ keyboardist, who has been with the band for 30 years, much of that time spent as band manger. When asked what keeps him involved after three decades, he told us it comes down to love. “It’s been quite an adventure,” he said. “And I just love it. The energy that the music gives to the people and the spirit. The way people love The Skatalites. …It has changed since almost all of the originals are gone now, especially since Lloyd Knibb passed away, who was always my real reason for being there. I loved the way he played and his vibe in general.
“When he died (in 2011) he wanted us to carry on the tradition. Tommy was the official leader, but it was really Lloyd’s idea to start the band. Lloyd always oversaw everything that everybody did no matter who was the manager or leader. And Tommy left and eventually passed away. But Lloyd was always the main man that anybody had to deal with. And I said, ‘What do you want to happen to the band?’ And he‘s like, ‘Well you and Dion.’” Dion is Lloyd’s son, who after touring with The Skatalites for a few years, left to pursue his own projects.
“That’s been one of the interesting parts of The Skatalites,” Stewart said in regards to the ever-changing roster of band members. “Even when there was an alleged steady line-up, there was still nine guys up there most of the time, and it was kind of typical that maybe one of them was missing, and somebody else was there instead. So there was always a myriad of guest artists, changing personnel, especially in the beginning.”
Always adapting, The Skatalites have endured, and currently tour the world with their celebrated sound. “We play tiny little clubs for a 100 people – one place was so small I had to crawl over somebody to get to the keyboard – and we play some of the biggest festivals in the world for up to 500,000 people and everything in between,” Stewart said.
The Skatalites’ current line-up features a cast of outstanding players, including the only original member still touring with the band: The Queen of Jamaican Ska, Doreen Shaffer. Barrier-breaking music royalty, she has been blessing the world with her voice since launching her career at Studio One when she was twenty. “She’s the last touring original,” Stewart explained. “Lester is still alive but does not tour with the band any more. Doreen is my saving grace as manager and as one of the veteran players. The line-up has changed so much, it’s nice to see an old, familiar face. And she’s actually become a lot more feisty in the past 15 years. She is a hoot. We are playing together, both as guest artists with Western Standard Time at the upcoming Supernova Festival in Virginia. We’ve done a couple excursions like this where it’s just the two of us and we hook up with another band, be it in Argentina, Brazil or wherever it might take us. It gives us a chance to unwind a little and go out and have fun.”
We asked Stewart if, as a senior member, he felt a responsibility to keep the legacy of the Skatalites moving forward. “Hell yeah!” he told us without hesitating. “It goes back to when Lloyd passed me the torch when he passed away. And we do have a lot of new things going on right as we speak. We’re in the middle of doing new tracks. There’s going to be a collaboration with Ken Boothe and probably a lot of other artists. I’ve been talking about this for a long time – making an album similar to the concept of the Toots’ True Love album – put a guest on each track. We’ve had a lot of interest from just about anybody we’ve asked.”
Expanding into new musical territory while staying true to the original sound requires balance. “Well, that’s the art of it. You have to try and do all that. We want to do something interesting to keep fans coming back,” Stewart said. For it’s the fans that help carry The Skatalites into the next generation. And this Friday, ska fans have the opportunity to experience The Skatalites up close and personal. Stewart said there will be a mix of old tunes and newer tunes. “We play some instrumentals, and Doreen comes on, we play some more instrumentals and everybody dances from the first note.”
Before The Skatalites hit the stage, several other bands will perform both in the ballroom and in the subterranean brick Wheelhouse. Dave Noonan’s Green Island is a collective of the area’s best musicians, playing reggae, afro-beat, jazz, funk, and ska. Orchestrated by drummer Dave Noonan, the band is named for the Skatalites’ tune “Green Island.” He was first introduced to the song on a re-issue of Don Drummond’s Treasure Isle tracks. “The tune has a great beat and an amazing trombone solo. Its lyricism spoke to me,” he said. Utterly unique and unlike anything he had heard before, it immediately resonated with him. He also liked the sound of the words “green island” and the image the words evoke. It mattered to Noonan in choosing a name for his band, that the song was not just distinct but also killer. “As a musician I really appreciate songs that say something in a way that’s different but also have the ability to transmit a message that I can identify with. That’s how I want to speak to the people who come to our shows, to communicate that emotional experience by the way the band feels our way through the songs.”
Other musical acts featured at Green Fest include: The Equalites, veterans of the Western Mass music scene and the longest continuously playing reggae band in the Pioneer Valley, bringing roots reggae to the people for over 30 years; The Diamondstones, an improvisational psychedelic jam band; Machakos Kyalo, a rising hip-hop artist from Kenya; and dreamy groove rockers, Delawater. DJ’s I-ganic Sound System and DJ Funkybottom will be spinning the air space between bands. Plus, a total Taco Takeover by The Brass Buckle to satisfy every taste bud.
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