Most pop music is such a succotash that it's all but impossible to identify the single source of any particular style. But there is one group that can be pinpointed as the wellspring of an entire genre: the Skatalites, a collection of players who indeed created modern Jamaican music during the band's initial run, from 1963 to 1965. The style the group developed, now known as ska, has not only been the tree trunk from which all subsequent Jamaican music has branched but also a worldwide phenomenon with a devoted audience here in the year 2000. Without the Skatalites, Bob Marley & the Wailers and the Police might have sounded much, much different.
The enduring influence of the group -- not to mention the opportunity to headline the Reggae Sunsplash Festival in Jamaica and London -- compelled the Skatalites to reunite almost two decades after its breakup. The group's still explosive chops were in fine form, as evidenced on the essential two-CD set Stretching Out (ROIR), which gathers crudely recorded yet musically rich tracks from a Sunsplash rehearsal and club show in that summer of 1983. Soon after, the Skatalites decided to re-form, eventually relocating to North America, where the current members all live.
Much of the credit for creating ska has been awarded to the group's awesome three-man horn section -- trombonist Don Drummond and trumpeters Rolando Alphonso and Tommy McCook, now all deceased -- for its composing and arranging skills. The particular genius of that horn section sometimes overshadows drummer Lloyd Knibbs, the man seated behind the front line, whose unique sense of rhythm and timing was an essential ingredient in the slinky Jamaican beat. One of the three founding players still remaining in the Skatalites, Knibbs is the source of a rhythmic pattern that has indelibly changed modern music.
This innovation came about in the early 1960s. The Skatalites were not yet a group, but the members played together in a variety of bands. As the best musicians on the island, they were the core group for recordings made by a number of hustling (and often rapacious) producers. (This milieu was later depicted in the film The Harder They Come, starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff.) Much of the music was based on the American rock and roll and R&B that beamed into Jamaica from radio stations in Miami and New Orleans. "We was into Nat 'King' Cole and Fats Domino, and all the rock and roll singers and blues singers," says Knibbs. "That's the way we started. That's what we played at first, until I changed the beat."
The historical change occurred during sessions with legendary Jamaican producer Clement "Sir Coxson" Dodd; that subtle rhythmic shift would prove to be the first Jamaican touch on the uniquely American sound.
Knibbs recalls that pivotal moment. "Eventually Coxson asked me to change the beat for them. Him want a different beat," says the drummer in his thick Jamaican accent. "Well, I get into this thing, and I used to play mento and calypso and all that stuff, so I put all that together and gave them a drop on the second and fourth beat on the bass drum and snare. So it came out that way, and from the '60s until now, I changed up the beat into what's called ska."
When the Skatalites started performing in clubs and making records in 1963, the band was a sensation on the island as well as in Great Britain, where it scored substantial hits that reached well beyond the resident UK/Jamaican population. The influence was so immediate that it can be heard on the rare yet influential Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames album R&B at the Flamingo, recorded in 1963. Ska's subsequent hold on the British music scene's imagination peaked in the late 1970s and early '80s with the Police, Madness, the Specials, the English Beat and the Selector, and later with General Public and Fine Young Cannibals.
Of his invention, Knibbs says: "It came from my heart." As a youngster, he was inspired by Jamaican big-band drummer Donald Jarrett. "I used to go watch him play, and then go home and get out a cardboard box and play it like the drums. And I used to listen to Gene Krupa and those guys, and Max Roach." Similarly, the Skatalites brass players were influenced by the hot horn men of American swing and bebop. But the Jamaican sound that the Skatalites created was also influenced by native Caribbean music such as calypso and the captivating Jamaican folk genre called mento.
When not honing their considerable talents with club gigs or recording sessions, the members of the Skatalites would often play harvest festivals in the countryside, where they absorbed traditional island styles into their vocabulary. "We used to go into the country, because when the cane cutting would finish and all that stuff, they used to have dances," says Knibbs. "Them people, they liked to hear calypso."
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It was probably predestined that a unit as volatile as the Skatalites could not remain together long. The first blow came on New Year's Day, 1965, when Drummond, the band's most prolific and inspired composer, murdered his girlfriend. Having long suffered from mental health problems, Drummond, upon conviction, was shipped to an asylum, where he mysteriously died a few years later. The group played its last show in August of that year.
Death has regrettably taken its toll on the Skatalites; pianist Jackie Mittoo died in 1990, and Alphonso and McCook passed away in 1998. Yet the group carries on in fine fashion with new players, anchored by the original rhythm section of Knibbs and bassist Lloyd Brevett and founding saxophonist Lester Sterling, as well as by singer Doreen Schafer, who was a guest vocalist with the band during its initial run.
For Knibbs, there is sweet satisfaction in not only being a genuine innovator, but continuing to spread the ska sound nearly four decades after he helped invent it. "Everyone must know and remember me for that," he says without a hint of hubris. "I'm the only man who has marks on my hand that I can show you, and no other drummer has them, because of the way I play and my sound, and it came out that way."
The Skatalites perform Friday, June 9, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. For more information, call (713)862-7580.