Echoes of Kingston

The Skatalites ring in Jamaica's 50th anniversary

This summer, the island nation of Jamaica celebrates 50 years of independence from British colonial rule. The year 1962 saw the London debut of the Rolling Stones, the ex-communication of Fidel Castro by Pope John XXIII and the death of Marilyn Monroe. It was an era that truly changed the world. Progressive ideas blossomed, and music took on a whole new role.

A surge in Jamaican record labels churned out what would become some of the world’s most dynamic, revolutionary music. A list of Studio One recordings from the 1960s reads like a hall-of-fame of Jamaican royalty—Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, the Skatalites.

This year marks the 48th anniversary of the Skatalites, the band that invented ska as we know it today. Their music has witnessed a half-century of international adaptations, from its jazzy roots to the rude boys of English Two-Tone and the ska-punk brannigans of California Third Wave.

“The Skatalites have a tremendous amount of energy onstage. We get as much back from the people as they do from us,” says band manager Ken Stewart. En route to a show in New York City, Stewart describes a band that plays around 150 dates a year. “I’ve never seen anyone,” he adds, “who couldn’t resist moving their body at a show.”

The band has welcomed new players as original members pass away. “People ask the elders, ‘When are you going retire?’ The answer is pretty much never,” says Stewart. With the passing of founding drummer Lloyd Knibb last May, who is said to have played on some 2,000 recordings, the band is releasing a new album, Walk with Me, which will feature Knibb’s last recordings.

The Skatalites are currently headlining the Echoes of Kingston Tour, benefiting the Alpha Boys School, a home for wayward kids, in Kingston, Jamaica. Established in the 1880s, the school’s music program paved the way for many of the band’s original members, along with Yellowman, Johnny Osbourne and Rico Rodriguez. The tour is collecting gently used musical instruments to take back to Jamaica.

The show also features Berkeley’s Junior Toots, son of Frederick “Toots” Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals. “I definitely support the project to get instruments to the school and pay tribute to the legends that are giving back,” says Junior Toots. “Ska did a lot for the business at home and abroad, bringing people together in a dance-oriented, positive light.”