By Gabe Meline
Straight out of Kingston, Jamaica, the Skatalites are a sufficiently epochal act that naming them the real deal would be almost facetious. While the band can’t claim to have invented the genre–ska was already a growing concern in its native Jamaica by the time the Skatalites formed in 1964–the group have long established themselves as the venerable standard and soul-bearers for the genre, presiding over every major ska wave that has come and passed in the four decades since.
Many members have cycled through the Skatalites, as the group at times has resembled more of a loose collective than a traditional band lineup. In the early days, the collective served as a backing band for the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and countless other reggae and ska icons. But if one thing remains constant with the group, it’s the snare-drum-tight arrangements the ensemble have become recognized for, a rhythmic chug that has persisted through decades of ebbing and flowing interest. But with an emphasis on collective collaboration, the individual members are less crucial than the group as a whole. The Skatalite’s philosophy is typified by the recording process behind their new record, On the Right Track, the group’s first original set in seven years. They appear March 24 at the Last Day Saloon.
According to the band’s keyboard player and manager Ken Stewart (who is a relative newcomer to the group, having joined in 1989), On the Right Track was recorded and written in a manner similar to those early ’60s Skatalites records that fetch enormous sums on eBay nowadays. Songs were composed on the fly, and recordings were done in-between, before and after sets, Stewart explains. “We didn’t have any material, so we had to scramble,” he says. “Each member of the band composed a track, so 11 of the 12 songs are originals.”
For a band that once spent innumerable hours in the studio, seven years is a long time to go without recording, even if in the Skatalite’s case, it’s a relatively short period of their history.
Stewart isn’t a huge fan of the third-wave punk-ska revival, believing “that the really fast punk ska loses some of the soul,” but he notes that the founding and long-term Skatalites members preside over the considerable legacy they helped establish with an enormous sense of pride. Traveling across the world, they find that legacy remains as vital and relevant today as it did decades ago. “They say imitation is the highest form of praise,” Stewart says. “Well, every country we go to we meet people playing their version of the Skatalites. We’re flattered by this. We go to Russia, and they know more about the Skatalites than even the Americans do.”
The Skatalites perform on Saturday, March 24, at the Last Day Saloon. Sol Horizon opens. 120 Fifth St. (at Davis), Santa Rosa. 8pm. $20-$25. 707.545.5876.