First-rate reggae bands visit Erie about as often as Halley's comet, so circle Tuesday on your calendar. Mystic Vibrations from South Carolina will play at Docksider Tavern.
South Carolina? Don't smirk. Band leader Ric Williams grew up in the Little London area of Westmoreland in Jamaica when reggae was born and eventually exploded.
He saw his heroes at Reggae Sunsplash, a longtime reggae festival, as well as in clubs. Peter Tosh, one of his favorites, was born just six miles from his home.
"I started playing when I was in school," Williams said. "I saw Bob (Marley) at Sunsplash when I was 8 years old. And I saw Dennis Brown and a lot of these artists. Growing up, I got to back up a lot of the artists. I played behind Yellowman. Freddy McGregor. Big Youth -- a lot of them, in Negril."
At age 32, Williams took the big step -- moving from Jamaica to the U.S.
"I got married at the time," he explained. "I lived with my wife here for four or five years in Columbia, S.C."
South Carolina was not exactly a bastion of reggae.
"It was a lot of struggle. It was different," Williams said. "When I was in Jamaica, I was playing music every day in hotels and backing (musicians) whenever I could."
Fortunately, he found a few other misplaced musicians.
"I hooked up with a few guys that were from different islands," Williams said. "Then, I started to teach others who were interested to learn, then I started pulling from that."
Mystic Vibrations plays soulful, relaxed, traditional reggae with lithe grooves and an irrepressible, sunny vibe. This is sweet, swaying reggae -- neither ramped up nor clubbed up for modern times. The band also occasionally branches into dub-style reggae -- accentuating the bass and drums through reverb and echo.
Mystic Vibrations just issued "Gwaan," its first album since 2002's "Live in Finlay Park." Williams said the band will play a few songs from that album, but also mix in a healthy dose of covers by traditional stars such as Marley, Tosh and Brown.
Williams has expanded Mystic Vibrations' territory in recent years, though this is the quintet's first foray into Pennsylvania. They've shared festivals and gigs with the Wailers, Burning Spear, Third World, Yellowman and Inner Circle, among others.
Williams still visits Jamaica when he can, though he can't call it a vacation.
"When I go there, it's with my guitar, a job. It's not a vacation," he said with a laugh. "I just go down there and play music with friends who play in the hotels. Traditional reggae is still strong in the clubs, but the recording scene is different. It's strayed a little bit from the traditional. But, even in America, the (musicians) in reggae bands are playing traditional-style reggae."
Mystic Vibrations will play Tuesday at 9 p.m. at Docksider Tavern, 1015 State St. Tickets are $5 advance, $8 at the door. For more on the band, visit http://mystikmuzik.com.
"On the Move" is the 2nd full-length album by Jersey City-based group Kiwi, a masterful and joyful celebration of reggae rhythms, soulful vocals, and Latin jazz-inflected harmonies. The band's expansive, brass-heavy arrangements echo the classic reggae and R&B grooves of the late 60s/early 70s.
Kiwi's music is welcoming and eminently danceable, radiating an infectious energy that belies the oft-introspective content of singer-songwriter Alex Tea's lyrics. Tea, the grandson of a classical violinist, playfully sets melodies inspired by the classical music he grew up hearing against Brazilian jazz chords and an insistent reggae rhythm.
Initially founded as an acoustic duo, Kiwi has grown into an 8-piece juggernaut with a stable core comprised of the New York area's best jazz and funk players. "On the Move" features the talents of Ramsey Norman (drums), Matt Quinones (bass), Ben Guadalupe (percussion), Dave Stolarz (keys), Barami Waspe (tenor sax), Curtis Taylor (trumpet), and Rob Edwards (trombone).
As a singer, Tea is a gentle crooner one moment and a raw-throated proselytizer the next. A lyrical ferocity undercuts the percolating rhythms of many Kiwi songs; a conscious lyrical vision of a world full of injustice as well as possibility. "My poetry leaned left as I was leaning to the right," Tea sings on the Wailers-evoking album track "Sun Never Set."
The inspiration for Kiwi's sound has its origins in Tea's multiple extended stays in Brazil, beginning with a trip to the ocean-side city of Fortaleza over a decade ago. It was in Fortaleza that Tea first fell in love with the Portuguese language and capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that combines exuberant dancing with powerful strikes and take-down maneuvers. Capoiera was developed in colonial Brazil by enslaved Africans and their descendants, who wanted to keep their battle training a secret from their Portuguese overseers.
"What drew me most into capoiera was the sense of community among everyone involved," says Tea. "Each roda [capoeira exhibition/match] also had a live soundtrack that featured instruments, melodies, and cadences that I had never heard before." The new album features an original love song sung entirely in Portuguese called "Aprendiz".
Brazilian instruments also play a large role in shaping the sound of the record; Brazilian jazz aficionados may recognize the sounds of the cuica and agogo, as well as the fishing-pole shaped berimbau. "On the Move" was produced by the band and mixed in upstate New York by Jocko (moresound).
After honing their sound at clubs, parties, and dancehalls in New York City's Greenwich Village, Philadelphia, and Boston, Kiwi is currently booking its first national tour and seeking label/management representation.
Reggae, at its roots, is message music. And the Inner Visions reggae band plans to bring that meaningful concept to the forefront at the 24th Lafayette Reggae and Cultural Festival Saturday and Sunday at Pelican Park after a year’s absence.
Inner Visions is known for melodic songwriting, impassioned lead vocals and three-part harmonies that recall the roots reggae bands of the 1970s, a time when calling out inequality and calling for justice was a common theme with many reggae bands.
Phillip “Grasshopper” Pickering, lead vocalist/guitarist with Inner Visions, said the band continues the tradition.
“I think the messages which it brings forward, the messages of love and consciousness, is a message that’s needed, especially in the world today,” said Pickering, who goes by Grasshopper. “And so this is very important to me and very important to Inner Visions to help spread that word.”
Over the years, reggae, like a lot of traditional music no matter the genre, has gotten away from its roots and incorporated contemporary styles for commercial appeal.
In the case of the Jamaican-born music, said Grasshopper, it’s the times in which we live that call the music home.
“It’s going to come back,” he said. “Life is getting harder; it’s not getting easier. It’s going to get worse,” he said. “And the way people suffer, they’re looking for something that’s going to comfort them and give them some kind of feeling of reconciliation.”
Inner Visions is a family band with Grasshopper’s brother Alvin “Jupiter” Pickering on backing vocals and bass, and Grasshopper’s sons Akiba “Mr. Snooze” Pickering on vocals and keyboards, and Aswad “Hollywood” Pickering on drums.
“Our message of love is one that we make sure we share with the people,” said Grasshopper. “The people, when they leave our show, they say they feel like they’ve been to church.”
Call the music inspirational or social commentary, reggae lyrics include lighter subjects, such as dancing and love. It all can be heard when strains of the island music permeate the air with a Reggae Fest lineup that also includes The Meditations, The Itals, Reggae Infinity, Likkle Shanx, Irie Channel, D.R.U.M. and Russel Cormier.
Last year, though, Pelican Park went without the festival. Chris Omigie, festival director, said he was in his home country of Nigeria last year.
“I could not come back in time to organize the festival,” Omigie said. “So I was able to take time off and introduce myself to the country and tell them the direction where I’m going.”
And part of that direction includes a reggae festival in Nigeria’s capital city.
“I’m planning a reggae festival in Eagle Square in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria,” said Omigie.
At this year’s festival, coupled with arts and crafts, a fun zone for the kids and food booths, there will be authentic Nigerian fare, Omigie said, adding that Nigerian community organizations in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Houston have endorsed the event and will be cooking food.
“This is the first time and they want to cook Nigerian cuisine,” he said.
The Reggae Festival has featured major acts like Lucky Dube, The Itals, Third World and Freddie McGregor over the years. Still, Omigie admitted reggae music is a hard sell where zydeco and Cajun music have deep roots.
“Don’t do a festival because you want to get rich. You have to do a festival knowing that you are reaching somebody, touching lives,” Omigie said. “I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m holding a social gathering where people can have a good time.”
It’s an attitude that is also Omigie’s personal philosophy.
“First of all, you have to be happy,” said Omigie. “Everything you have in this life is vanity. When you die, you’re not taking it with you.
“I’ve come too far,” he added. “And where I’m going is nearer than where I came from.”
Summerfest Productions, promoters of Reggae Sumfest, has confirmed Siccature Alcock - popularly known as Jah Cure, as the grand finale act on International Night 1, Friday, July 26.
Executive producer of Reggae Sumfest, Johnny Gourzong, said choosing Jah Cure as a closing act was a no-brainer. "Jah Cure has the right flavour, expertise, stage performance and a crowd-stopping voice to grace the stage as the final act," he said.
Not at all daunted by the task of being the closing act, Jah Cure is preparing for what might turn out be his best performance yet. He will be following acts such as American hip-hop star Flo Rida, veterans Beres Hammond and Barrington Levy, reggae superstar Tarrus Riley, and relative newcomers Iba Mahr, Droop Lion, urban jazz singer Kiara Dubwah, and Nature.
The soulful Jah Cure, who is widely recognised for hit songs such as Call On Me, Unconditional Love, That Girl and Longing For, last performed on the Sumfest main stage in 2011. Hailing from western Jamaica, he has a large following of fans eagerly awaiting his performance next Friday at Catherine Hall in the Second City.
Unconditional Love, featuring Phyllisia, recently passed the impressive threshold of over five million hits on YouTube.
According to the singer, he is honoured to wind up International Night 1 for such an acclaimed reggae festival and has big plans in store for his fans. "I am closing the Friday night and that is a chance for me to cement my status as one of the leaders of reggae in the 21st century. I am coming to work for the patrons at Sumfest and I have a wonderful set lined up," he said.
Another show-stopper added to the festival on Dancehall Night is I-Wayne, a consummate performer who is a rare treat who will add a touch of fire to the explosive performances on Thursday, July 25. Being very familiar with the Reggae Sumfest platform, the singer is eagerly anticipating he will add a touch of culture to Dancehall Night, with his hits such as Living in Love and Can't Satisfy Her.
Reggae Sumfest toasts to a successful 21 years from July 21-27, 2013. A few of the heavyweights performing on the festival this year are Grammy Award-winning R&B singer Miguel, reggae artistes Damian 'Junior Gong' Marley, Beres Hammond, Barrington Levy, Romain Virgo, Chronixx and Life Seeds singer I-Wayne, who has been added to the Dancehall Night line-up.
The 2013 staging of Reggae Sumfest is sponsored by Digicel, Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, Jamaica Tourist Board, The Gleaner Company Ltd, Secrets Resorts, Red Stripe, Pepsi, Ting, Grand Palladium, Half Moon, Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, Sunset Beach Resort, RIU, and Sandals Resorts International.
For more information on the festival and ticket details, visit www.reggaesumfest.com.
The idea for Reggae Fest started 22 years ago, while Jim Jenkins and Bill King were on a bicycle tour of Jamaica. The business partners, who five years earlier acquired The Historic Trempealeau Hotel, wanted to bring that music and cool vibe to Trempealeau.
Since 1991, Reggae Fest has established itself as an early gem on the Coulee Region’s summer festival calendar.
“It holds certain risks to have an outdoor event in May, but we wanted to jump-start the summer,” said Jenkins, who sold the hotel to Amy Werner last year. “We’ve had Reggae Fest on days with 90 degree weather but also when it was only 50 degrees and raining. The fans, at least, never seemed to mind.”
Reggae Fest is always set for the Saturday before Memorial Day. This year, the long-range weather forecast is for temperatures in the low 70s and mostly sunny skies, ideal conditions for an outdoor festival.
Events such as Reggae Fest have a positive impact in a small village such as Trempealeau — fans regularly outnumber Trempealeau’s population of 1,500 — and boost business at local hotels, restaurants, bars and gas stations.
“The hotel has a long history of having great music and attracting visitors from metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities, and these visitors sharing their Trempealeau experience with friends, families and coworker, is the best marketing we as a community could ask for,” said Village Administrator Travis Cooke.
To warm things up on Friday night, Madison’s DJ Hardworking Lover pulls out his favorite records and spins music from old school to dance hall.
The first act on Saturday is Dred I Dread. With members from Jamaica, Mexico, Turkey and the United States, the band combines myriad styles around a solid core of Jamaican reggae.
The second slot is filled by reggae powerhouse Gizzae. These Caribbean, African and American musicians — Rocket, Ruphael, Clem, Evans and Ralph — have been performing for more than 30 years.
“When you play reggae in different parts of the world, you notice more similarities than differences between the fans,” said Brian “Rocket” Rock.
“Our musical influences are quite diverse,” said Sedar G., Gizzae’s lead guitarist. “They range from Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan to The Clash and Mutabaraku.”
Headliner T.U.G.G. plays at 8 p.m. Reggae Fest also is the official release party for the La Crosse-based band’s fourth full-length EP “Maze.”
“We’ve grown into our song writing as a group,” said lead singer Andy Hughes. “We tried to make the album have a flow. It turned out to really weave in and out of reggae-rock and rock-ska. The hotel has one of the most beautiful backdrops I’ve seen for live music. You have the gorgeous Mississippi River behind the wooden open-air stage — it’s just so serene.”
Werner said she and her staff look forward to Reggae Fest each year.
“Folks are done with winter and want to listen to warm tunes and celebrate outside amongst nice people,” she said.
The Buckroe Beach Reggae Fest brings together fans of Jamaican-flavored music and culture for a day of fresh air, good grooves and laid-back fellowship.
It might not be obvious at first glance, but the event is also meant to appeal to children. In addition to live music, the festival offers activities for youngsters including sand soccer and face painting. The atmosphere is intended to be family-friendly.
"To be honest, that's the reason I wanted to start the festival," said Kevin Purnell, one of the event's founders. "I wanted to make something for the kids to look forward to, something positive … That's No. 1 on the list, the kids."
Purnell, the father of a 12-year-old son, takes pride in the growth of the Buckroe Beach Reggae Fest, which returns Saturday for a third run.
As many as 8,000 music lovers crowded Buckroe Beach Park last spring for the event and organizers are hoping for an even bigger turnout this time around.
"The energy is different," Purnell said. "We've worked so hard to promote it, it's almost like the first one again."
Local reggae enthusiasts including Purnell, Seko "Blackstarliner" Francis and Cindi Lewis-Brown launched the event in 2011 with a mostly local set of performers including Tuff Lion, United Souls and Stable Roots. A crowd of about 5,000 turned out for that first edition.
While last year's festival, which featured Nature's Child, Bimini Rd and Bambu Station, drew a bigger crowd, some of the fun was tainted by wet weather.
This year, the Buckroe bash offers music from local favorites United Souls and Session Rockers along a set from a full-fledged headliner, Culture featuring Kenyatta Hill.
The band is credited with helping to define the roots reggae style. Kenyatta Hill took over leadership of Culture after his father, Joseph Hill, died in 2006.
"Joseph Hill's devotion to the traditional Rastafarian values of purity, simplicity and justice is exemplified by Culture's lyrical themes," a bio for the band explains.
Milo Miles, writing for The New York Times, once named Culture "the leading exponent of 'conscious reggae,'" meaning that the band's messages are often uplifting and socially relevant.
That's part of what makes the music appeal to Purnell.
"I've been seeing them since the late 1980s or '90s, in Washington, D.C, California, Europe," Purnell said. "Having them down at Buckroe, right in my neighborhood, is going to be amazing."
Want to go?
What: Buckroe Beach Reggae Fest
When: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, May 11
Where: Buckroe Beach Park, 100 S. First Street, Hampton
11-11:45 a.m. Machet Reggae Band
Noon-12:45 p.m. Destined Nation
1:05-1:50 p.m. Tonahope
2:10 -3:00 p.m. United Souls
3:20-4:05 p.m. Session Rockers
4:30-5:15 p.m. Antero
5:45-6:45 p.m. Jahworks
7:15-8:45 p.m. Culture
This July features the Utah Reggae Festival with Daniel Marley.
Having moved from Ogden to Salt Lake City, this festival will feature Dirty Heads, Tribal Seeds, Daniel Marley and Fortunate Youth with support from Codi Jordan Band, Natural Roots, Know Ur Roots.
The special guest with a set planned is 24-year-old Daniel Marley, the grandson of Bob Marley and son of Ziggy Marley, and making his first trip to Utah.
"I know about the Utah Jazz," he said in a phone interview. "John Stockton."
Daniel grew up on tour buses when he was a toddler, and started making beats before most of us could spell "beats."
He wrote his first full-fledged song at 13, and now is adding modern elements to music that his grandfather brought to the masses.
"It’s all in the genes," he said.
Music comes to him constantly, and even when he was on the phone with The Tribune, he admitted, "I am thinking of a song right now. I;m thinking of melodies right now. It’s not magic. It’s what [I’m] here to do."
Where does it come from?
"Without the Creator, we are nothing," he said.
In addition, radio station X96 is offering discounted tickets for the 2013 Utah Reggae Festival featuring at $10 tickets. The offer begins today (Friday, May 10 at 5 p.m.) until they are GONE, with 500 tickets available. You can purchase them at Aztec Highway, Twisted Roots or online.
When • Saturday, July 13, from noon to 10 p.m.
Where • Liberty Park, 589 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20 to $30 at SmithsTix after $10 deal is over
Chatting with Jimmy Cliff is not like a normal conversation. It’s like talking to a poet whose choice of words is organically and naturally the most eloquent. He gives the impression that he’s not even trying. That’s how he talks. And that gift of words, which the celebrated reggae legend and actor has used to acclaim, makes even the most innocuous chat something pretty.
Take his description of his native Jamaica, which is still his home base, as “my inspiration. I still get that from Jamaica. The energy is right, there. It’s a little piece of Atlantis that sank.”
Come on. Who talks like that? Jimmy Cliff does.
As he makes his way to SunFest on Sunday (3 p.m.) by way of Miami, his base when stateside, he’s enjoying a renewed interest from fans old and new since the 2012 release of the Grammy-nominated “Rebirth,” which made Rolling Stone’s list of the year’s best albums. But he says he is, as ever, the same man, “singing the songs I have sung. Acting was my first love, but singing is something I value. So I wanted to be one of the great singers.”
Although he started writing in his teens, Cliff came to international acclaim in 1972’s “The Harder They Come.” He played a penniless reggae musician turned criminal Ivanhoe, creating not only a classic about poverty, ambition and crime, but introduced audiences to reggae music with songs like “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers To Cross” and the title track.
Cliff believes that its appeal transcends culture and geography because it’s about all of us.
“Reggae touches the human people on this planet. It’s political, spiritual — one of the best ways of relating to human beings. When I first came to the U.S., it was mostly Caucasians that found it. One of the reasons that I like to be in Florida is that more (people descended) from Africa would find it too. It connects to people all over the world, to the continent.”
There’s something more universal than the message, of course.
“It’s got that beat where you don’t have to be a great dancer,” he says, and even over the phone you can tell he’s smiling. “You know that dance where you don’t have to move a lot and still feel you look good.”
We know the one. That dance and the swaying rhythms that inspire it are universal, and Cliff is constantly finding musicians who claim him as an influence, including former Rancid singer Tim Armstrong, who produced his most recent album, and Dave Matthews, with whom he’s toured.
“It’s good that I can do that,” he says. “I think I’m an inspiration just from living my life. I am a person who is just very sensitive, feeling everything. Some good, some bad. People grew up listening to my music, and it’s good to see that so many have drawn imagination from that. It’s encouraging for me.”
In turn, Cliff says he likes to draw inspiration from other artists and genres to “stay current,” even when breathing new life into a classic, like The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” from “Rebirth.” (Or his version of the Partridge Family’s “C’mon, Get Happy” in the recent Jamaican Volkswagen ad.)
He says that he is drawn to songs that are from different genres “that feel right.”
After decades of touring, Cliff says he still enjoys it, although he’s careful “to take care of myself.” He’s pleased to find that reggae has translated to places far removed from the ocean, “like Chicago.”
And no matter where he goes, he just hopes to leave the place feeling better than when he left.
“I look at life as a journey,” he says. “Each (chapter) has stops and starts. Some are interesting, some are not. But you can learn something, take something as you go along.”
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: The Flagler Drive waterfront, downtown West Palm Beach
The big acts: Train, Smashing Pumpkins, Boz Scaggs, Jimmy Cliff (3 p.m. Sunday, May 5), Cheap Trick, Barenaked Ladies, Ed Sheeran, Gary Clark Jr., Phillip Phillips and more.
Tickets: $22 to $37 for daily admission.
More info: SunFest.com and at 800-SUNFEST (786-3378).
THE POST IS YOUR SUNFEST SOURCE
Nobody is more familiar with Sunfest than Leslie Gray Streeter, who is entering her 11th year of covering SunFest for The Palm Beach Post and pbpulse.com. Her favorite acts among the hundreds she’s seen over the years: James Brown, Jason Mraz, Mavis Staples and the unforgettable night that Eric Clapton came on stage to play guitar with Sheryl Crow on “Higher Ground.”
If you want to know what’s happening at SunFest this year, follow Leslie’s blogs on pbpulse.com and her Tweets (@lesliestreeter), beginning Wednesday night and throughout the weekend.
And keep turning to the Palm Beach Post all this week for Sunfest coverage:
TUESDAY ACCENT: Leslie’s look at the offbeat band Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes. And in The Scene: 5 non-musical things to do at SunFest.
WEDNESDAY ACCENT: What’s new in SunFest food? Liz Balmaseda reports.
THURSDAY ACCENT: Leslie interviews the Boca man behind SunFest’s psychedelic party, Life In Color.
FRIDAY’S TGIF: Our big weekend SunFest issue, with day-to-day schedules, a site map and Leslie’s interview with Slightly Stoopid.
SATURDAY ACCENT: Leslie’s interview with Sunfest performer and “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips.
Plus: Daily schedules in The Scene from Wednesday-Sunday.
If there is one thing that Slightly Stoopid does not lack, it is stage presence.
While some of the musical talent did not seem to transfer from its eight studio albums to the live performance, Slightly Stoopid did present a very cohesive reggae sound, with a small mix of jam and punk rock.
Slightly Stoopid offered Athens a solid collection of fan favorites, playing hits such as “Closer to the Sun,” “Collie Man,” and “No Cocaine.” The band even threw in a cover of Charles Wright & the Watts 103 Street Rhythm Band's eponymous classic, "Express Yourself."
What set Friday’s show apart from other spring concerts was the band’s interaction with the crowd. The tickets were sold out, but the show still had a feeling of intimacy created by the band’s outgoing personality on stage.
Lead guitarist and vocalist, Miles Doughty had the fans raising their hands in the air, raising their lighters in the air, saying '"hello" to a sick friend of the band on the phone, and even chanting “shimmy shimmy ya” by the Ol' Dirty Bastard.
As has become a trend at the Georgia Theatre this spring, the crowd was audible from across the street and started a Braves chop right before the encore, proving Slightly Stoopid’s ability to please time and time again.
The opening act, Tribal Seeds, shared the stage with Slightly Stoopid for its encore. They will continue to tour together for the next few weeks, making stops in Nashville, Tenn., Winston-Salem, N.C., and numerous other musical hot spots in the Southeast.
Having now toured on its last album for nearly eight months, Slightly Stoopid will likely continue playing its warm weather music live throughout the summer. As the band continues to play a driving force in the reggae movement that was once driven by classics like Sublime, it would be no surprise to see Slightly Stoopid continue its success with a ninth studio album in the near future.
Forty-nine years. Nearly five decades. Almost half a century. That's how much time has passed since The Skatalites first assembled boogie-woogie blues, jazz, Calypso, mento and African rhythms into one of Jamaica's signature musical styles. Nine of the original 10 Skatalites have passed on, but founding member Lester “Ska” Sterling continues to hold forth on alto sax as the newer version of the band tours in support of their latest album, “Walk With Me.” From the 1964 debut album, “Ska Authentic,” to the new one, the times and musicians may have changed, but the music -- and the love of it -- has remained the same.
Things started way back at what was considered a place to send “wayward boys,” Alpha Boys School. The school, run by the Sisters of Mercy, maintained not only high expectations of behavior, but of musicianship as well. Original Skatalite Tommy McCook was enrolled in Alpha Boys School in 1938. Other Skatalites, including Sterling, trombonist Don Drummond, Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, Cedric Brooks, Vin Gordon, Rico Rodriquez, Ernest Ranglin, Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton, Bobby Ellis, “Horsemouth” Wallace and JoJo Bennett, all of whom have played with or were members of The Skatalites, were also students at Alpha Boys School.
Sterling remembers the school as a place you could learn a trade and an instrument. Legend has it that Moore got himself in trouble just to be sent to Alpha so he could play music with the best. Music theory was an integral part of learning to play, and the rigorous training at Alpha Boys School resulted in a brilliant generation of Jamaican musicians. These musicians would influence the changing sounds of the 1960s.
As Jamaica gained its independence, the island's music took on a new life, mixing dancehall with jazz and incorporating social consciousness into the greater themes of the songs. The brain trust of this new world was Studio One, where The Skatalites began recording. One of their songs, “Simmer Down,” became Bob Marley's first No. 1 Jamaican hit. In addition to backing Marley and The Wailers, The Skatalites played behind other top singers of the day -- Stranger Cole, Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, Toots and The Maytals, Delroy Wilson, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff, all of whom benefited from the incredible musicianship of the band.
How good were they? So good that after officially forming as The Skatalites in 1964, their first rehearsal -- at the Hi-Hat club, a legendary New Orleans burlesque club -- turned into their first gig when so many people crammed inside to listen that the owner started charging admission. The salad days were short-lived however, as The Skatalites' story took a dark turn.
Trombonist Don Drummond was often described as a “mad genius.” Widely acknowledged as both a brilliant songwriter and erratic performer, Drummond often admitted himself to the sanatorium. Ultimately, his instability led to the stabbing and killing of his common-law wife Marguerita Mahfood in an apparent fit of jealousy on New Year's Eve of 1965. By August, The Skatalites had split into two supergroups, Rolando Alphonso and the Soul Vendors, and Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. In early 1967, Drummond's ska adaptation of the theme to the film “The Guns of Navarone” entered the U.K.'s Top Forty chart. He died in the Bellevue Asylum in 1969.
But this was not to be the end of the story. In 1974, bass player Lloyd Brevett was recording a solo album that, bit by bit, turned into a Skatalites reunion. In 1979, the band recorded an album that remains unreleased due to contractual disputes. That setback didn't keep them from moving forward -- they reunited and played Montego Bay's Reggae Sunsplash festival in 1983. The success of that show propelled them forth yet again. Simultaneously through the late 1970s and early 1980s, English two-tone revival groups The Specials, Madness, The English Beat and Selector incorporated The Skatalites influence into their own highly popular music. American bands followed along including The Slackers, HepCat, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, David Hillyard and The Rocksteady 7, The Toasters and King Django. The success of bands influenced by The Skatalites has helped keep the originals -- and the new version of the originals -- in demand.
Through the late 1980s and into the 2000s, the band continued to tour and record. Notably, after first serving as Bunny Wailer's backup band in 1989, they followed up in 1990 performing behind Prince Buster. The momentum continued, leading to 1993's highly acclaimed “Skavoovee.” U.S. audiences were embracing ska with fervor at the time and the constant touring of The Skatalites kept their old fans engaged while gaining new ones exponentially. Even as the band returned to their jazz roots, their following remained extremely loyal.
The Skatalites' current members are Lester Sterling (alto saxophone); Doreen Shaffer (vocals); Azemobo “Zem” Audu (tenor saxophone); Andrae Murchison (trombone); Kevin Batchelor (trumpet); Val Douglas (bass guitar); Natty Frenchy (guitar); Cameron Greenlee (keyboards) and Trevor “Sparrow” Thompson (drums). When it comes to adding new members, the guiding philosophy is that the music is its own entity and each musician brought on board respects that and helps to continue carrying it through to audiences new and old.
Reviews of “Walk With Me,” The Skatalites' 15th studio album released in May 2012, praise the expert arrangement and impeccable performances. Dana Smart writes in the Examiner that “their inimitable chug and hot syncopation confirming the band's status as the originators with such zeal that one would swear Duke Reid or Coxson Dodd himself was behind the boards, coaxing these fiery performances from the band.” In the Austin Chronicle, Dan Oko raves “... dancehall done right. Pass it along!” An Afropop Worldwide review gushes “'Walk With Me' is, front to back, an unqualified pleasure of a listen.”
Samples from “Walk With Me” can be found in the audio section of skatalites.com.
With the word “legendary” firmly attached to their reputation, the fact that The Skatalites are coming to Humboldt is spectacular. The fact that they're playing in the intimate venue of Arcata's Jambalaya is even more amazing. Catch them Saturday at 10 p.m. and be sure to get tickets ($20) in advance through jambalayaarcata.com. The show is 21 and over. Elephant Dub Squad opens.
What: The Skatalites
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jambalaya, 915 H St., Arcata
Admission: $20 in advance, 21+