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Legendary Skatalites revisit their local ties

The Skatalites are (top to bottom) Doreen Shaffer, vocals; Trevor “Sparrow” Thompson, drums; Andrae Murchison, trombone; Cameron Greenlee, keyboards; Lester Sterling, saxophone; Azemobo “Zem” Audu, saxophone; Kevin Batchelor, trumpet (no longer in band); Val Douglas, bass; and Natty Frenchy, guitar.

The Skatalites are (top to bottom) Doreen Shaffer, vocals; Trevor “Sparrow” Thompson, drums; Andrae Murchison, trombone; Cameron Greenlee, keyboards; Lester Sterling, saxophone; Azemobo “Zem” Audu, saxophone; Kevin Batchelor, trumpet (no longer in band); Val Douglas, bass; and Natty Frenchy, guitar.

It’s not a terrible stretch to call tonight’s Skatalites show in Shirley a “homecoming.” While Jamaica is truly the birthplace of the Skatalites, these progenitors of ska and catalysts for rock steady and reggae have substantial roots in and influence on the Massachusetts ska community.

The musicians who came together as the Skatalites were originally studio players for record producers Coxsone Dodd, Junior Reid, and others at a time when Jamaican music was coming into its own. The jazz-
informed horn parts, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and plucky guitar tones took hold in the 1950s. Ska blossomed when “Simmer Down,” a Dodd-produced track with the Skatalites backing the Wailers — Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer — became a top hit in Jamaica in 1964. That same year, the Skatalites started releasing music under their own name and performing around Jamaica. They cooked for a year, recording signature tracks “Guns of Navarone,” “Confucius,” “Eastern Standard Time,” and others before disbanding in summer 1965, not long after trombone player and songwriter Don Drummond was charged with murdering his girlfriend and was committed to an asylum, dying there in 1969.

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In 1983, the remaining Skatalites reformed to play at the Reggae Sunsplash Festival in Jamaica, and that began a slow journey toward more concerts and recordings.

In 1987, the reunited Skatalites performed at Nightstage in Cambridge. Boston band Bim Skala Bim opened the show.

“That was a complete educational experience,” recalls Bim Skala Bim bassist Mark Ferranti.

Up until that point, Bim Skala Bim had been heading in the direction of other so-called third-wave ska bands and bringing a punk edginess to its ska, just as fellow locals the Mighty Mighty Bosstones were doing, inspired by the English bands putting out songs on the Two-Tone label.

“They definitely influenced our approach to ska. If you look at the Bosstones or Specials, we started going the other way, back to a sparse groove,” Ferranti says. Skatalites saxophone player Roland Alphonso played on Bim’s sophomore album, “Tuba City,” released a year after the Nightstage show. Ferranti is still sticking to a traditional sound with his work in SuperSka! and Duppy Conquerors, as well as the occasional Bim get-together.

Keyboard player Ken Stewart was also at the Nightstage show. He was in a reggae band and couldn’t pass up the chance to see the legendary Jamaican troupe. But he was unprepared when six months after that he spotted Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb playing with a local band in Rhode Island.

Like other members of the Skatalites, Knibb relocated to the Northeast. He lived in Hull, and Stewart stayed in touch with Knibb, helping him get a day job at an auto parts store and plugging him into the vibrant reggae scene around Boston. By 1988, Stewart was playing with the Skatalites and took part in the band’s 1989 tour with Wailer.

“That put us back on the map,” says Stewart, who stayed with the Skatalites until 1991. Stewart went on to form the reggae and ska band the Agitators with singer Dion Knibb, Lloyd’s son.

It was around this time that Zack Brines got his hands on a cassette copy of “Stretching Out,” the then-tough-to-come-by collection of 1960s Skatalites recordings.

“I was in high school listening to the Two-Tone records and Bosstones. I just thought ska was reggae sped up. Then I heard ‘Stretching Out,’ and it’s dark, murky, and heavy with all this artistic horn playing on top,” recalls Brines, who plays keys in Boston ska outfit Pressure Cooker.

Just a few months after that, Brines went to see local ska faves the Allstonians play at the Middle East nightclub. But instead of having their regular drummer, the Allstonians had Lloyd Knibb sitting in.

“He drove in from Hull and demolished,” Brines says, marveling at the chain of events. “I got a tape six months before of unknown, lost musicians and all of a sudden he is there in my town.”

Not only was he in town, Knibb was accessible. Jeff Eckman was the drummer Knibb filled in for at that Allstonians’ gig, and Eckman went on to take lessons with the man considered the master of ska beat-keeping. Eckman now plays with — you guessed it – Pressure Cooker, who open for the Skatalites tonight at the Bull Run.

Like Bim before it, Pressure Cooker worked the ska family network to get Skatalites sax player Lester Sterling to
solo on the song “Originators” that appears on the band’s second album.

When two of the original Skatalites — sax players Tommy McCook and Alphonso — died within months of each other in 1998, Stewart returned to the group to help manage the band as well as to perform with it. Today, Stewart sticks to managing the group, which is down to two originals, saxophonist Sterling and singer Doreen Shaffer. Lloyd Knibb died in 2011. The show on Friday falls on what would have been Knibb’s 82d birthday.

Shaffer joined the band when it decided to go out on its own as performers. Though largely an instrumental ensemble, the Skatalites wanted to feature singers on a few songs. Shaffer, reached at her home on Long Island, recalls passing the audition held at Dodd’s Studio One but being unable to rehearse with the band.

“They were rehearsing in downtown Kingston. I was in school and it was forbidden for me to go there,” she says.

She jumped right in then with matinee shows the Skatalites played at the Bournemouth Club, a public pool and rec hall.

Shaffer stayed active in ska and Jamaican music after the Skatalites brief initial run and performs today with a couple of European ska bands as well as with the Skatalites. She still commands the spotlight, as heard on “Love Is the Way,” her feature on the new Skatalites album, “Walk With Me,” released this week.

In addition to putting out new music, the Skatalites remain a strong live draw, with its current tour including a stop into the SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas. Shaffer says the younger players in the Skatalites have maintained its authenticity.

“I give them credit for meeting the standard set by the band. The young ones are keeping it going,” Shaffer says. “I’m just grateful there is still such an audience and that people are interested.”

Why the Skatalites endure is no surprise to Brines, who says, “They alone didn’t invent ska, but they are the ones who made it matter.”

Scott McLennan can be reached at smclennan1010@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.
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