The House That Ska Built
With the pace of the music world getting faster and faster by the download, it's easy to forget how important it is to slow down sometimes and just enjoy music for what it is. These days, you can get a brand new album sent to your cell phone before it even hits the stores. That's fine, but as music technology moves forward, the further detached we become from its past and from the pioneers of certain genres.
So it's good to see that, thanks in part to local promoter Luther Mackey, the Second Annual Jamaican Vintage Music Festival lifts off this weekend at the Bergeron Rodeo Grounds in Davie. The concert will showcase some of the island's innovative but often forgotten musical acts from yesteryear and gives reggae fans young and old a chance to reacquaint themselves with the artists who carried the genre on their backs before reggae became an international sensation.
Considering all the controversy surrounding Broward's Caribbean Carnival two weeks ago, there's a touch of joy in knowing that another Caribbean-themed event can come right behind it — in the same county, no less — without drawing the ire of local politicians.
Interestingly, this year's Vintage Music Festival also gives local music lovers a chance to see how genres that predate reggae served as Marley & Co.'s foundation.
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Although there's a long list of reggae veterans on the bill (the Mighty Diamonds, Cocoa Tea, Brigadier Jerry, etc.), the festival also features ska, rocksteady, and American soul, with the Stylistics, one of Philadelphia's most popular soul quartets, as the headliners. As lovable and timeless as the Stylistics were, with their huge barrage of hits from the '70s (like "Betcha by Golly Wow" and "Break Up to Make Up"), they might seem like an odd choice to close out a festival of vintage Jamaican music. According to Mackey, though, "One of the objectives of the festival is to display a full spectrum of Jamaica's music culture. What people don't realize is that a big part of Jamaican music is American Soul. Just like a big part of it is gospel and country and western. Groups like the Manhattans, Jerry Butler, Al Green — the real soul music, plus Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash. In Jamaica, we would listen to all that stuff on the BBC, so that's what we grew up on... and reggae was derived from all of these styles."
Talk about this with another part of the festival line-up, the Skatalites, a Jamaican band that predates practically everyone on that list, and it begins to make sense.
"I could buy into that theory," says Skatalites keyboardist Ken Stewart, "because groups like Bob Marley and the wailing Wailers, they were trying to imitate the Drifters [the groundbreaking R&B group formed in the mid-1950s]. That sound is like the model for early reggae. And, hell, ska came out of boogie woogie blues. Most of the acts that reggae groups listened to on the island, before there even was reggae, were from Memphis."
In that sense, this year's Vintage Music Festival has an educational value for audiophiles that's well worth the price of admission.
The Skatalites alone are like a walking classroom when it comes to the rich history of music that both precedes and extends beyond traditional reggae in Jamaica and abroad. The group, which formed in 1963, was the architect of the slightly jazzy and heavily horn-based genre known today as ska. As the house band for Jamaica's legendary Studio One, often described as the "Motown of Jamaica," the Skatalites backed up everyone from Toots and the Maytals and Prince Buster to the Wailers (back when Bob Marley and company were still singing gospel); they helped craft, note by note, the paradigm for modern-day reggae without ever crossing over into the genre themselves. Instead of focusing on vocals, the Skatalites style was more akin to a dance-happy, mainly instrumental jam band that took the shuffle beat of the blues and turned it into a skank, with the keys and guitar playing the offbeats.
The core unit of the Skatalites only played together for 18 months — in 1965, after the death of Don Drummond, the band's charismatic leader, they abruptly called it quits and didn't perform together again for 18 years. While their early reign in the dancehalls and on the airwaves was brief, the group brimmed with would-be legends like Jackie Mittoo, Tommy McCook, Jah Jerry Hines, and, of course, Lloyd Knibb, the group's winsome drummer, who still plays with the band today.
Speaking by phone on tour in Boulder, Colorado, Fredrick "Toots" Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals fame, said, "They were the number one backing band in the world, man, and they're the number one ska band in the world. They were the best."
The Skatalites have been touring together again since 1983 (only three of the originals are still with the group); without them, some of your favorite bands might not be together. Everyone from Sublime to No Doubt to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones were influenced directly by their style. They were used to being imitated. Before the Skatalites reunited, the Clash, the Specials, and the whole mid-'70s English Beat sound appropriated Skatalites stylings. So if you're looking for good tunes and a musical education, head to the Jamaican Vintage Music Festival this weekend. The culture of ska isn't as strong in the U.S. as it used to be (except for areas like Boston and Southern California), but that doesn't mean it's dying out.
"When I see 10-to-12-year-old kids with porkpie hats, suspenders, and black-and-white suits at our shows in Europe, I know ska music isn't going anywhere," Stewart says. "Ska has spawned its own culture, and if you're not familiar with it, it's really something to see."
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