By Joshua Green
Nowadays musicians tend to take for granted their ability to raise political awareness; for some it’s all in a day’s work. But popular music hasn’t always reflected the politics of the populace, and in the heady atmosphere of postcolonial Jamaica, the practice was still practically unheard of. Though they existed for just 14 months, from 1964 to ’65, the early Jamaican ska band the Skatalites heralded not only future incarnations of reggae but political pop from Curtis Mayfield to the Sex Pistols to Public Enemy.
Foundation Ska, a reissue of 32 Skatalites hits recorded on the Jamaican Studio One label, is by no means a complete catalog of their work, or even of their best work. But it illustrates an important link between the American swing music that pervaded Jamaica in the 40s and 50s and the island’s own music, which evolved rapidly after Jamaican independence in 1962, when the tourism industry deserted the island, leaving a swarm of unemployed musicians with time on their hands.
Oddly, Jamaica in the 50s lacked a recording industry, despite rabid demand for records from mobile “sound system” DJ collectives like the one run by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd (who produced the tunes on Foundation Ska). But when American swing petered out at the end of the decade, Jamaican musicians and producers finally began collaborating on their own music, a sort of swing-derived boogie. The musicians were a disorganized lot, understandably eager to record as much as possible, and producers took advantage, calling on whomever was available, paying them up front to cut tracks, and then sending them on their way. One of the musicians, tenor saxist and flutist Tommy McCook, figured if he gathered together the best of his peers into a set group, he’d have more bargaining power.
He was right: in 1964 with trombonist Don Drummond, saxists Roland Alphonso and Lester Sterling, trumpeter John Moore, drummer Lloyd Knibb, bassist Lloyd Brevett, guitarist Jerry Haines, and keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, McCook formed the Skatalites, named in honor of a Russian satellite launched earlier in the year. They became the premier session band of the early 60s, collaborating with such notables as the Wailers, Justine Hines, Stranger Cole, and former calypso artist Lord Tanamo. When ska caught on–spurred in large part by their innovations as a backing band–the Skatalites found themselves in heavy demand.
According to McCook, the new style was dictated as much by economics as by any explicit desire to experiment: electric basses were expensive and hard to come by, so the bass fell into the background. As the accent shifted to the down beat, the piano’s staccato bursts became dominant. With guitars serving mostly to augment rhythm, large horn sections, left over from the swing era, dominated the tunes, and individual horns often soloed in lieu of a vocalist, as with Sterling’s jazzy alto solo on “Two for One” or McCook’s tenor on “I Should Have Known Better.”
Though roughly half the tunes on Foundation Ska are instrumental–a fact that might surprise modern ska fans–this sort of wildly exuberant, celebratory horn play reflected Jamaican attitudes in the wake of independence. The overwhelming feeling even among the poor was that Jamaica was finally on its way to glory. Carefree instrumentals titled “Hot Cargo” and “Christine Keeler”–named for the woman at the center of the political scandal that helped end British rule–summed up the prevailing mood. Other titles paid homage to key political figures, including Fidel Castro, with whom many islanders identified. When the Skatalites did use vocals, they often turned to artists they’d worked with in their session days, like Bob Marley & the Wailers on “Simmer Down,” and Cole on “World Fair,” both included on Foundation Ska along with other tracks fronted by popular vocalists like Jackie Opel.
Though not nearly as boldly as righteous reggae artists to come, the Skatalites used their music to protest the social and economic problems that moved in to replace colonialism. Multinational corporations drove country folk off their farms to get at the bauxite-rich soil. Meanwhile, European beet sugar was crippling the island’s sugar-exporting business, forcing more and more people into the slums of Kingston. Drummond’s minor-key solo on the instrumental “Alley Pang” captured their distress. And songs like “King Solomon,” “Beardsman Ska,” and “Addis Ababa” nodded to the growing influence of Rastafarianism, whose open acknowledgment was considered a serious protest of the status quo.
Details of the Skatalites’ demise are vague. McCook says they officially split in late August 1965. But the fatal blow followed a 1964 New Year’s Eve concert that Drummond slept through. Suffering from mental illness and angry at his girlfriend, singer Marguerita Mahfood, for forgetting to wake him up and give him his medication that evening, Drummond stabbed her to death, casting a shadow on the Skatalites that they couldn’t shake.
Producer Dodd had a backlog of recorded songs by the band and continued to release them for some time after Drummond was murdered in prison. One of Foundation Ska’s most haunting tunes is “Woman a Come,” sung by Mahfood with a McCook solo. The song is actually about Drummond himself, who reportedly stabbed Mahfood in the hand with a pen for coming to the studio one day.
The remaining members re-formed in 1984 and have toured successfully, particularly in Europe, on the strength of the hits on Foundation Ska. McCook unearthed several Skatalites songs Drummond had written but never introduced to the group, and has recorded them on three albums released since the band got back together. Even with the lineup largely intact, it’s difficult to imagine the Skatalites could ever match the energy and mood that infected Jamaica in their heyday. Still, Foundation Ska remains a musical and sociological chronicle of those times, and an inspiration to anyone who thinks art should not only imitate life but improve it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.