Although only around for a year and a half in its original 1964 permutation, The Skatalites is an institution. Its musicians formed the backbone of ska, as well as offshoots rocksteady and reggae, and developed many of the playing styles associated with the genres.
Ken Stewart is the band’s manager and former keyboardist (he still fills in on occasion). He met The Skatalites in the ’80s after the band migrated to New York City and reformed—around that time he played in a reggae group with late great Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibbs. Over the phone Stewart discussed the origins of ska and keeping the band alive.
What drew you to reggae and ska?
My father plays traditional jazz. So I grew up with a lot of ragtime—Scott Joplin, that kind of jazz. Then I took a liking to mainstream jazz, jazz fusion, jazz rock. When I heard ska, that was the perfect combination of jazz and reggae. I had been playing reggae because it was something I has always liked, but when I heard The Skatalites I really fell in love.
When did you first hear it?
Well this is the thing—I didn't know what real ska was. I grew up in the '70s and '80s with two-tone, like The Specials and The English Beat (who I love).
Would you explain what the real stuff is and how it came to be?
In the beginning, ska was musicians from Jamaica playing American boogie woogie, R & B—stuff that was coming out of Memphis and New Orleans. And it wasn't called ska and it didn't really sound like what came to be Jamaican ska. It was basically studio musicians looking for something to play. Radio had just come to Jamaica and the recording industry was just starting—we're talking mid '50s here. That boogie woogie rhythm that was coming out of the U.S. was adapted, and slightly altered, and more and more altered, so by 1960 it sounded like something much different than the U.S. stuff. And it was the combination of putting the accent on the off beats, and also the drumming patterns that were played around what the guitar and bass were doing.
It happened that simultaneously the island was about to achieve independence from the United Kingdom. They were kind of looking for this more indigenous music to call their own anyway, and because of the technology and various factors that came into play, that's how ska came in. Jamaica's actually in its 50th anniversary of independence right now because it happened in 1962. So by that year we didn't have a Skatalites yet, but we had all these gentlemen that are in the Skatalites playing together on various records. So that was the birth of ska.
Then it spawned other forms.
Ska was taken and slowed down a little bit mostly due to hot weather and people getting older. They didn't want to dance so fast, so the rocksteady came in. And then the rocksteady continued to get a little slower, and eventually they called it reggae.
Would you say there's a philosophy behind ska?
Well, I think it's different to different people. The Skatalites were never political, nor were they—certainly not back then—openly discussing Rastafarianism or anything like that. Back then the songs were different, too. There's vocal tunes, we're talkin' about love, we're talkin' about maybe just having a good time. They even covered stuff like "Hey Bartender." I think as reggae came it became more of a message of the people, whether it be Bob Marley or various reggae groups trying to send their message. It's a true folk music.
Why has the band kept going when so many of the original members have passed away?
Well, because the ones that are still left don't want to give it up, and people love it. We still continue to travel all over the world all year long, and most of the guys went out either on stage or very soon after. It seems to be the way everybody wants to ride it out. ... Lloyd, our drummer who passed away last year at 80, said “Everybody keeps asking me when I'm gonna retire: What's that mean? I'm gonna go sit in a chair and do nothin'? I don't want to do that." This is the biggest enjoyment. None of the Skatalites became wealthy through the whole thing. The only thing they really love is the expressions on people's faces who are standing in front of them, listening and dancing to this music. That's the biggest reward we get out of any of it.