A Catholic school for wayward boys run by the Sisters of Mercy would not be the first place coming to most people's minds as the birthplace of Reggae and Ska music. But in one of those mysterious quirks of fate the Universe delights in, if it hadn't been for Sister Ignatius and the Alpha Boys School in Jamaica who knows if that whole music scene would have developed as quickly as it did.
Formed back in the 1800s, the Alpha Boys School instituted a music program as early as the 1890s. This wasn't just some half-baked music program either; the Big Bands that played the island dance halls in the 1940s and '50s would attend senior concerts in an attempt to sign students to play for them. They would make arrangements with the nuns for them to perform in gigs at bars and dancehalls giving them valuable professional experience.
The sisters knew that there was a good living to be made by being a musician in those days, as the three biggest bands of Jamaica would come to the school and recruit boys for a career with them. The Military Band, The Regimental Band, and the Constabulary Band were frequent visitors to the school and competed with the dance bands for boys by being able to offer them permanent employment.
Tommy McCook, one of the original members of the The Skatalites was in the band at Alpha school from 1938 to 1942 and a full dozen graduates of the school are either currently still members or passed through the ranks of the band. To this day the Skatalites and other prominent Jamaican musicians take part in a benefit concert for the Alpha school as a mark of their appreciation for its contribution to developing the country's second most popular export – music. (You can figure out the most popular on your own)
The Skatalites were officially formed in 1964, although they had been playing together in various formations for a while before that, and immediately became the house band for Studio One and backed up the biggest names in Reggae. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and The Maytals, Delroy Wilson, and The Wailers themselves all benefited from having them play behind them at the start of their careers.
The Skatalites themselves weren't as fortunate with their career as a group as those they backed in the studio. Just as things were starting to take off for them, their major creative force, Don Drummond, succumbed to mental illness and was confined to a sanatorium for killing his wife in 1965. He committed suicide a year latter.
It wasn't until 1983, thanks in part to the Ska revival in Great Britain brought about by the success of The English Beat and Madness, that they even attempted a reunion concert. Their appearance at Reggae Sunsplash that year went over so well Island records offered them a contract to start recording. In 1984, twenty years after their formation, they finally began to achieve international recognition they deserved for their contributions to the music of Jamaica.
Now, more than forty years after their formation they are still going strong. The line up for their latest release, On The Right Track on the Australian label AIM International is a combination of the old and the new.
Lloyd Knibb, the man credited with inventing the reggae drumbeat, still anchors the rhythm for the band he helped found, just as Saxophonist Lester "Ska" Sterling and vocalist Doreen Schaeffer provide the continuity up front. Joining them are other veterans from the Studio One days of the early sixties; Karl "Cannonball" Bryan on tenor sax, Vin Gordon on trombone, Val Douglas on bass, and Devon James on guitar. They might not have been in the original Skatalites but they have walked the same roads for so long they bleed and breathe Ska just as the three originals do.
Rounding out the band are Ken Stewart who's been the band's manager since the 80's and plays Hammond B3 organ, and Kevin Batchelor on trumpet who is a veteran of reggae bands like Steel Pulse. In other words this band is as tight and hot as any bunch of young bucks out there.
You only have to listen to the opening and title track of the disc to know that this is not just some nostalgia act put together to cash in on a name. This is one of the tightest bands I have heard in a long time. Yet at the same time manage to convey a feeling of incredible looseness and relaxation. That's always been one of the miracles of Ska as far as I'm concerned, never a note out of place but creating music that makes you want to let go of all your troubles.
Unlike some of the more modern Ska bands who equate speed with proficiency, the Skatalites understand the need to go slow so the groove can permeate. Maybe you can listen to the first couple of songs without getting to your feet, but slowly and surely, almost without you noticing it begins to work up your spine.
A pulse that eventually overpowers the sound of your own blood makes its way through your veins and begins to exercise control of your whole body. All of a sudden you are on your feet and dancing before they've even reached the halfway point of the disc. The key to Ska and reggae is it must appear effortless in its delivery for it to have maximum effect on the listener. If the band sounds like they are working hard, it's going to be hard work for the audience to listen too.
But if you are like the Skatalites and you not only live and breathe Ska, but you invented it, you don't even think about such annoying trivialities. You just pick up your instrument and make the glorious music that you've been making for years and years and trust in your instincts that it will be right.
When you listen to the music of On The Right Track that feeling comes across in every note on every song. If you want to hear Ska music played as it should be played by people who know what they're doing, picking up this disc is a sure way of knowing that you're on the right track.
I just want to add a word about the AIM International label and the efforts they put into packaging their music. I have just reviewed three of their discs and each one came with a substantial and legible booklet full of information on the performers and the genre of music. Not many labels go to that amount of effort anymore and when I find one that does, I really appreciate it.
AIM's recordings are distributed in Canada and the United States by Allegro Music and can be usually purchased through Amazon and it's affiliates; they're definitely a label worth keeping an eye on.