Saturday, December 31, 2011

How to Revolutionize Music (Quickly): The Skatalites

Happy New Year! May 2012 be about two thousand and twelve times as productive, peaceful, stress-free, prosperous, lucky and serendipitous as 2011!  And may you travel many many interesting musical pathways.

To take you on your way into the new year the Washerman’s Dog shares a set of wonderfully upbeat musical blandishments and sweetmeats for your New Year’s Eve dancing party. Even if dancing means little more than tapping your fingers on the arm of the easy chair as you sip a warm single malt.

The Skatalites are to ska and reggae what the Beatles were to pop music and Hank Williams to country.  Both definition and inspiration. Super studio band that backed everyone from Anton Ellis to Bob Marley and Toots and Maytals they laid the basic soundtrack of 1960s Jamaica and what subsequently became known as reggae (and its many progeny).

In the story of The Skatalites are buried happy and sad lessons of poverty, passion and institutionalisation.  The group’s key members, Thomas McCook (sax), Johnnie ‘Dizzy’ Moore (trumpet), Lester Sterling (alto sax) and the mercurial and tragic figure, Don Drummond (trombone) came together at the Alpha Cottage School for Boys, a nicely named church run institute for trouble-seeking and trouble-wielding boys. Rather than flash blades or use their fists, a Catholic priest got them blowing into brass instruments, little realising that these discarded bits of humanity would go on to revolutionise a nation’s music and secure a rarefied and respected niche on the global scene.

The Skatalites

Starting out, the unlikely lads played in Kingston hotels and were soon joined by the seminal pianist Jackie Mittoo and Lloyd Knibbs on drums.  At the same time, the initial studios were opening up and the group found themselves to be in demand as everyone’s favourite back-up band.  In 1964, they began referring to themselves as The Skatalites, In between recording for others they criss crossed Jamaica playing their own gigs to a rapidly growing audience.

So important and omnipresent was the group that it is hard to know where their music started and other artists’ ended. Since they played on thousands of records that were released by countless other acts and musicians they often did not get the credit.  But their sound and drive and energy and ‘magic’ was what made the song a hit.  In this way, their influence and importance to creating and defining their ‘musical moment’ far exceeds that of the Beatles  and Hank Williams. They were everywhere, in every studio, backing every act and playing every weekend. They were making up a sound and an entire genre as they went.

Don Drummond

The musicality of The Skatalites is simply delightful. The horn playing is masterful but unassuming and laidback. Just like everyone’s idea of a Jamaican beach.  The licks are groovy and grabbed from any corner of the musical universe. Witness the direct ‘sampling’ of the Mexicali trumpets from Johnny Cash’s smash hit, Ring of Fire, on Music is My Occupation. Central to the beat and soul of the sound was the tremendous trombone work of Don Drummond.  Surely one of the best slide trombone  players ever but also one of the most troubled. His time as a delinquent and institutionalised (and brutalised) inmate of Alpha Cottage, affected his mental health. With the band barely a year old, he murdered his wife and the band’s vocalist and was reinstitutionalised in an Asylum. He died there in 1969. The Skatalites dissolved in 1965 but reformed in the early 80s and continue to play to adoring and hip crowds around the world even today.

These recordings are from their prime and short life as a band between 1964 and 1965.  Infectious, joyous and wonderous music.

Bye bye 2011!!!

            Track Listing:
            01 Guns Of Navarone
02 Eastern Standard Time
03 Garden Of Love
04 Latin Goes To Ska
05 (Music Is My) Occupation
06 Street Corner
07 Musical Storeroom
08 Green Island
09 Corner Stone
10 Musical Communication
11 Doctor Dekker
12 Feeling Fine
13 Don De Lion
14 Lucky Seven
15 Stampede
16 Silver Dollar
17 University Goes Ska
18 Knock Out Punch
19 Cool Smoke
20 Around The World
21 Alley Pang
22 Good News
23 Thoroughfare
24 Mesopotamia
25 Dragon Weapon

Listen here.


Apurva Bahadur said...

Sir, many thanks. Wishing you, family and friends the best for 2012. Have a great time! Apurva from Pune, India.

(Requesting an email from you on

Giri Mandi said...

Yeah, dear Ajnabi! I wish to you & all a splendid 2012, filled with manifold delights for your ears, eyes, heart, inner & outer being. With deep thanks for all the fantastic music you shared with us, making 2011 more pleasant!

ajnabi said...

Giri, thank you and all the very best for you and yours though out the year.