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Friday, Sept. 19, 2008

Heroes ska'ed for life


Special to The Japan Times

Making musical history was the last thing on Doreen Shaffer's mind when she joined The Skatalites. Still a schoolgirl, she was just happy to be singing in a band.

News photo
Breezy listening: The current lineup of ska pioneers The Skatalites get some fresh air.

Looking back, the vocalist, now 65 and one of three original members still touring with the group, realizes the extent of their impact. In a burst of creativity during the early 1960s, The Skatalites defined the sound of ska, the forebear of a myriad of Jamaican musical styles. Often described as the Caribbean island's first indigenous form of music, ska spawned rocksteady, which morphed into reggae. From there, the list goes on.

"At that time, it didn't register," Shaffer says by phone from her home on New York's Long Island ahead of a five-date Japan tour that starts Sept. 26. "Everybody had anxiety because you so badly wanted to be on a record. Young people think about the present. It's not like you're looking back after 10 years."

The influence of the band, which featured nine instrumentalists and several singers, had a ripple effect because they played behind Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and just about every other Jamaican star of the period.

"A lot of the famous artists started out under these musicians' guidance," Shaffer says of her bandmates' role as session players at Kingston's Studio One, a cradle of the island's music industry.

Shaffer got her break when she auditioned at Studio One. Singing "Adorable You," a song that featured her lyrics put to the melody of Dinah Washington's version of "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," she caught the ear of studio boss Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. He introduced her to drummer Lloyd Knibb, who was forming a band with some of the other house musicians.

That group would soon be named The Skatalites. Although they'd become famous for instrumental reworkings of such songs as the theme from the 1961 film "The Guns of Navarone," and The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" (aka "Independent Anniversary Ska"), the group liked to mix things up with their singers. Shaffer paired with Jackie Opel on male/female duets, Lord Tanamo was the band's calypso specialist, and Tony DaCosta was the resident balladeer.

Ken Stewart, The Skatalites' manager and the current lineup's keyboardist, isn't surprised when told that producers and other musicians of the era take credit for creating ska.

"There are probably about 50 of them," says Stewart, 49, by phone from Massachusetts. "Ska developed itself. I don't like to credit any one person with inventing an entire genre of music — or even nine people."

That said, he notes that The Skatalites contributed more than most to the development of the sound, which is rooted in the R&B and other music that was then reaching Jamaica via American radio stations. Knibb, 77, who — like Shaffer and 72-year-old alto saxophonist Lester "Ska" Sterling — remains active today, played a key role. Rather than faithfully reproduce what he'd heard, he'd add his own touch.

"His drum beat is what made the music different from what they were imitating," Stewart explains. "He took what's called the burru beat and put it in with the jazz and Latin thing that was going on. Before that, it was just boogie-woogie blues."

Of African origin, the burru drumming style figures in the nyabinghi music of Rastafarianism, a Jamaica-born religious movement. Stewart says nyabinghi incorporates the heartbeat-inspired rhythms played on the funde drum and the patterns that the traditionally goat-skinned akete, or "repeater" drum, plays around them.

The origin of the word "ska" is a subject of debate. There are those who claim it's derived from "skavoovee," a term of endearment that Stewart says was coined by Jamaican musician Cluett "Clue J" Johnson. He disagrees, saying, "It came from the sound the guitar made."

Accounts differ, but it's clear that The Skatalites were together in their original incarnation only briefly. Shaffer is certain the band didn't last more than a year. Others have been quoted as saying the group formed in early 1964 and split in the summer of 1965. Stewart laughs when asked if there's an authoritative version of The Skatalites' early history. Sorting out their more recent past is much easier.

The Skatalites first reunited onstage for the 1983 Sunsplash festival at Jamaica's Montego Bay, where the reggae- influenced Police were also on the bill.

"The main factor was seeing The Police and seeing how huge they were," Stewart says of the decision to re-form the band as a recording and touring unit. He adds that they were heartened by the ska revival that was then under way in Britain, led by The Beat, The Specials and Madness.

Stewart says they didn't make their reunion permanent until a few years later, due to tensions that were still simmering after two decades spent apart. Shaffer, who got a job singing in the Bahamas following the group's 1965 breakup, rejoined her peers after moving to the States in 1992.

Stewart says the reunited group got the momentum they needed in 1989, when they landed the support slot on Jamaican singer Bunny Wailer's North American tour. Since then, The Skatalites have toured almost annually and recorded a series of albums. Their most recent discs, "On the Right Track" (2007) and the live "In Orbit: Volume 1" (2005), got belated releases in Japan on Sept. 17 through P-Vine.

Shaffer laments that ska is more popular abroad than in Jamaica, but she's happy for its success overseas. She's fond of the Japanese ska scene and calls Tokyo's pioneering Ska Flames "old friends."

Ill health prevented some of the aging Skatalites from remaining involved with the band. Many of them have passed away. The latest to go was 69-year-old trumpeter "Dizzy" Johnny Moore, who died of cancer in Jamaica on Aug. 16, nearly a year to the day after founding guitarist "Jah" Jerry Haynes passed away at 80.

Stewart's confident that The Skatalites won't stop playing anytime soon.

"I ran into Lloyd Knibb's father back in January. He's 97, walking down the street carrying a six-pack on his way to play dominoes," Stewart says. "We think Lloyd's got the right genes."

The Skatalites play Sept. 26 at Zanadu, Sapporo, with Oki Dub Ainu Band (7 p.m.; [011] 261-5569); Sept. 28 at Shinkiba Studio Coast, Tokyo, with The Trojans, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra and more (4 p.m.; [03] 3444-6751); Sept. 30 at Nagoya Club Quattro with The Trojans (7 p.m.; [052] 264-8211); Oct. 1 at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka, with The Trojans (7 p.m.; [06] 6535-5569); and Oct. 3 at Hiroshima Club Quattro (6:30 p.m.; [082] 542-2280). All tickets ¥6,000 in advance. www.smash-jpn.com

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