Reggae music today is as healthy as it ever was, never looking back, constantly evolving, changing and moving forward. While this may be healthy for the music, it can be a double-edged sword: some of the greatest contributors and innovators of the music may be lost in the search for the latest trend.
Before there was Reggae, there was Rock Steady, and before there was Rock Steady, there was Ska. Unlike some other genres of music where the individual contributors to the sound can be indeterminate and lost to the sands of time, the Ska-Reggae progression can be greatly attributed to one group of master musicians who went under one moniker: the Skatalites.
The Skatalites officially formed in 1963, but the roots of the musical journey go back to the 40s. Key founders Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond and Lester Sterling all attended the Alpha Boys' Catholic School in Kingston, Jamaica. If a student were to volunteer for the school band, there would be less menial chores for them to do, so it was music for these four. This formal music training in theory, playing classical music and the like would have life-long percussions for these students.
Before World War II, the popular native music of Jamaica had been mento and calypso. During the 40s and 50s, American music gained popularity. The blues, jazz, country, the earliest of rock and most importantly Rhythm & Blues filtered in through the transistor radio and the mobile sound systems. The sound systems of the 50s were mobile PA's with huge bass speakers run by men like Clement 'Sir Coxonne' Dodd and Duke 'The Trojan' Reid (who would become the founders of the modern Jamaican music industry and the prime producers of ska and rock steady in the years to come on the 'Studio One' and the 'Treasure Isle' labels respectively.) The competition for the latest sounds from America was fierce - the sound systems would scratch off the labels of their records just so the spies from the other systems wouldn't know what they were playing.
The next step to get over on a competing sound system operator was logically to have a record that the other can not get - by making it yourself. As the tastes of American music shifted in the late 50s towards softer sounds, the Jamaica public still demanded the kind of jumpy R&B you could dance to. Sir Coxsonne looked to get himself an exclusive. And so in the late 50's the Jamaican music industry was born. Men like Laurel Aitken found success in gut-bucket boogie sounds and under-appreciated talents like Rosco Gordon, one of the greatest blues players of Jamaica. Different live scenes of Jamaica (in Jazz and mento) and the music business in Jamaica helped each other. Things were set to go to the next level.
Coxsonne's thriving Studio One needed a stable of musicians to back up the singers he brought in. The first house band, credited with supplying the roots to ska was....Clue J & His Blues Blasters. Still derivative of Blues and Boogie, Clue J's crew included the likes of sax man Roland Alphonso, who played sax with the band when backing Thelonious Beckford's song, "Easy Snappin'" credited by historians as one of the first ska tracks. The back-to-front piano style of artists like Rosco Gordon had stressed the second and fourth beats of each bar, a kind a rhythm that can be heard buried in blues and R&B. It wasn't called ska quite yet - it was Jamaican Blues- but the music was certainly moving forward and evolving.
Men like Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso were bouncing between sessions, playing live when a vocalist needed a pick-up band. One fateful day around 1963, producer Coxsonne Dodd and Tommy McCook decided that having a stable band of the top session men with their own group identity would not only be a financial bargaining chip on the live circuit, but could be a virtual petri dish for musical experimentation. The Skatalites got it together, got in, and ripped the roof off the house. Then and now, the ska beat has been synonymous with the Skatalites.
From when they formed in 1963 to when they disbanded amongst in-fighting and personality clashes. During this period the Skatalites backing literally all of the stars of the period (including Bob Marley's vocal trio the Wailers, the Maytals, Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster, Lord Tanamo, Ken Boothe, and loads more.) Classic hit singles from this time - Phoenix City, Bridge View, Freedom Sound, Latin Goes Ska, Eastern Standard Time, El Pussy Cat, Confucious, and so many more were all inspired work outs of instrumental prowess, jazz experimentation and hooky melodicism - all with an infectious bass heavy beat that doesn't ask you to dance - it demands it.
When they splintered into Tommy McCook's Supersonics (for Treasure Isle) and Roland Alphonso's Soul Vendors (for Studio One), the music would never be the same again. Perhaps it was the long, hot summer, perhaps people wanted to dance closer to their honeys, perhaps it was because the Skatalites disbanded - the sound of the Skatalites evolved into the slower rock steady, which soon became reggae.
The Skatalites have been getting together and disbanding for the past 30-odd years. There was a brief reunion in the 70's to record bass-man Lloyd Brevett's solo album "African Roots" and an album called "the Big Guns" for Island that was never released. They joined forces in the early eighties for a Sunsplash concert and recorded it for the classic live document "Stretching Out" and released the "Scattered Lights" album around this time. And finally, in the early nineties, they reunited once again under the Skatalites name and have released, including this one, four sterling albums of original ska music. It was no aberration that the Specials covered the Skatalites standard "Guns of Navarone" in their hey-day when they founded the 2Tone ska movement in England in the late 1970s. When the young musicians looked to bring the sounds of reggae and the energy of punk together, it was only logical that the Skatalites sound of ska be used as the half-way point. Bands like the Specials, Madness, the Beat and the Selecter would regularly pay tribute by covering tunes of the original ska period, almost all played and shaped originally by the Skatalites.
And it was through 2Tone that the seeds of ska were planted that now has blossomed in the 80s and 90s into the inter-national ska scene we have today. Just as the original ska musicians bastardized the blues to make ska, the music keeps flowing today in a new crop of young ska musicians.
When a music fan today is first introduced to what is called ska music today, they may start with a band like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whose sound is very much modern rock with some off-beat elements, or Hepcat, whose sound is very much a tribute to the original Skatalites style. If the music fan is dedicated and seeks the roots of the music, they may work there way back to earlier "3rd Wave" bands like the Toasters and Bim Skala Bim, and eventually the 2Tone "2nd Wave" bands like the Specials and the Beat. Finally, the ska traveler will arrive at the original point of inspiration, the "1st Wave", which can only be the Skatalites.
So on Saturday Aug 22, I made the hour and a half pilgrimage to the Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford, MA. After 20 or so minutes of waiting in line, I slapped on my press pass and took in the scenery. After a quick glance at the Moon Records table, I got in position to watch the opening band, which this year was New York's Metro Stylee, who had won a contest earlier in the month for the opening slot of the Fest, beating out he likes of Beat Soup, Dion Knibb & the Agitators, and The Brass Monkeys. My only problem with Metro Stylee is that while the music and musicianship is great, the lead vocals are extremely annoying. The vocalist, Trisha Verdolmo, seems to have graduated from the Gwen Stefani school of singing and prancing, and we all know the great debt the Ska community owes Ms. Stefani.
Next were 2 largely forgettable sets with Boston's Big D and the Kids Table and Kicked in the Head. To be perfectly honest, I and many of my fellow concert-goers were confused as to which band was on stage, since they pretty much sounded alike.
The New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble was on next, and had a pretty good set, with Pilfers bassist Anna Milat-Meyer sitting in on the first song. As always with the NYSJE, the musicianship was top-notch and was a welcome change from the watered down ska that was served up by the first few acts. Long Island's Edna's Goldfish followed the NYSJE and were excellent. The Goldfish are one of the tightest bands touring out there today. I've listened to their CD over and over and I found their live act just as satisfying. Edna's Goldfish have what I always look for in a ska band; they are consistent without being repetitive. New York's Pilfers were on next and also put on a great performance. Coolie Ranx had the crowd singing along, and Vinny Nobile was great, as always, on the trombone and vocals. It was neat to see how the crowd reacted to the Pilfers this year at the Fest, and compare it to how the crowd was at last year's Ska Fest, when the Pilfers weren't as widely known.
Next, Montana's, and now New York's, Skoidats hard driven set was fueled by the large Styrofoam cooler of beer that they brought on stage. Always a crowd pleaser, the Skoidats helped add an edge to a day that was seriously lacking bite. Boston's Skavoovie and the Epitones brought forth another great set. One of the highlights was a song that the boys dedicated to Starbucks called "I Hate Coffee" in honor of the coffee superstore's responsibility in closing many of the local coffee shops Skavoovie frequented.
After a somewhat ho-hum set by the Allstonians, Bostons' Dropkick Murphy's were sent in to wake everyone out of the ska induced coma many were feeling by this point. The new vocalist, Al Barr, proved he was the right man for the job as the band ripped through their set, which included "Finnegan's Wake", which made this reporter happy for many reasons. Then the day took a slight downhill turn with the 1-2-3 punch of the Planet Smashers, Spring Heeled Jack USA, and Mephiskapheles. Planet Smashers weren't necessarily bad, they just were not exciting enough to warrant much attention. Spring Heeled Jack USA resorted to their old tricks of throwing things from the stage and squirting water at the audience to cover up the same tired watered down set they've been doing for a while . Mephiskapheles was the real disappointment. This was the second time I've seen them in the space of a month and both times the Nubian Nightmare just seemed to phone in his performance. I hope it's just a phase because I've always really enjoyed Mephiskapheles.
What made the lackluster Mephiskapheles set even more lack luster was the incredible performance by Rhode Island's Amazing Royal Crowns, now renamed Amazing Crowns courtesy of Royal Crown Revue. The Crowns never disappoint and had the crowd, literally, calling out for more. This was one of the last performances under their old name, and one of the first with their new guitarist, Greg, who has replaced fan favorite Johnny "Colonel" Maguire. In my opinion, this set was by far one of the best of the day.
Michigan's Mustard Plug followed the Crowns. Mustard Plug was all right, but I've never really been a fan and their set didn't do much to convert me. Finally, Hepcat closed the day with a great set. The original headliner was supposed to be Bad Manners, but they cancelled many of their North American dates for some reason, one of which was the Ska Fest, so Hepcat had some big (and wide) shoes to fill. However, Hepcat did not fail to please and the set was by far one of the best and smoothest sets I've seen them play.
So as Hepcat played, I reflected on the day. Even though the food really sucked and it was way too hot and dusty, the really good performances outweighed the bad ones, so Johnny Concert-goer got a pretty good deal. And as if it were scripted, the sun set, the temperature dropped to a cool level, Hepcat played on, and everyone was just enjoying the music that had brought so many people from all over the region together.
I want to read more!