Jamaican band the Skatalites, godfathers of ska and reggae, have been performing longer than most of us have been listening. First formed in 1964, the nine-piece ensemble is bringing their fiftieth anniversary tour to Adelaide next week. I talked with veteran keyboard player and band manager Ken Stewart on Thursday.
Stewart colourfully describes ska and reggae as: “Music that will make you dance your feet off… When the band was in its original line-up, there was a story about a woman dancing herself to death. Now I’ve heard it from more than one member, but I’m not sure how true it is.” Personally, I would like to believe it.
2014 has been a whirlwind celebration for the Skatalites. Despite being jet-lagged, Stewart reels off tour dates by heart: “We played at Fuji Rock Festival, which is always one of our favourite places to play. And we’ve been to South America and North America, and Europe three times this year. We just came from two weeks in Europe… I don’t really know what sleep means right now.”
With their long and rich history, touring and recording is no stranger to the Skatalites. Beginning in the 1960s, they played with such legends as Bob Marley and Alton Ellis. Stewart explains: “You know, it’s like a big family out there. We run into various other Jamaican touring acts and all kinds of different folks. Over the years we’ve had people like Earnest Raglin and Monty Alexander come and play with the band… In various countries sometimes someone misses a plane or something like that and we had to fill in the instrument. We’ve had Russian players, Japanese players, French players, and British players. You know, some on long-term and some on short-term basis. But the band has seen a lot of different line-ups and faces and personal changes and, unfortunately, several passings away.”
Only two founding members remain with the band, singer Doreen Shaffer and saxophone player Lester Sterling. First joining the troupe in 1988, Stewart met and played with most of the original members. “That’s been a great honour,” he says quietly. Many of the newer members were hand picked and trained by their predecessors. Musicians may change but the music remains the same.
When asked if he thinks the Skatalites will continue to survive and thrive in the future, Stewart answered calmly: “Well it appears so. We’re still going strong.”
The Skatalites will perform in Adelaide on December 10th at The Gov. I urge anyone interested in experiencing this legendary ska and reggae band, this musical community, to come along.
Interview by Nicola Woolford.