Ska survivors still keeping the beat

The Skatalites, with Hepcat, the Slackers and the Gadjits, Sapphire Supper Club, February 16, 1998

The Skatalites are to ska what Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley are to rock & roll — they don't just play it, they helped to invent it. Ska has gone through numerous changes in its more than 30-year history, but the Skatalites remain a constant and vital component of the music's history.

"Before you had ska you had mento and what they call the Rasta drumming style, the nyabinghi style of African drumming," explains current Skatalites trumpeter Nathan Breedlove. "(Skatalites drummer) Lloyd Knibb basically took that style and changed the beat into what we currently know as ska around 1960 or so. They had the horns playing on the upbeat -- that was an early invention that is really attributed to the Skatalites."

Where many of today's third-wave ska bands draw as much influence from rock and punk as ska itself, former Lionel Hampton orchestra member Breedlove attributes the foundation of ska to big-band and bebop jazz. The Skatalites most recent release, "Ball of Fire," is a greatest-hits collection with new arrangements straight from the jazz idiom, with more room for soloists to stretch.

"Tommy McCook (sax), Roland (Alphoso, sax), Lloyd Brevett (bass) and Knibb all come from the jazz world," says Breedlove. "They grew up playing big band, what they call stock arrangements -- you know, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller -- and then they really got into bebop when Charlie Parker and Dizzy came around."

Breedlove acknowledges many young ska fans may not even know of the Skatalites' place as pioneers of the genre. The band is encouraged by the current renewed interest in ska and appreciates the new fans who come to shows. But Skatalites concerts are not mere history lessons. They're as upbeat and invigorating as any of the newer third-wave ska bands.

"A lot of the punk and alternative bands have picked up on ska and increased the tempos, made it a lot more upbeat that it was in the '60s," says Breedlove. "The younger fans that come out to our shows think ska emanated from ('80s ska band) the Specials."

"We're covering just about the whole country on this latest tour. I just hope we survive," laughs Breedlove.

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