Few bands can boast the lifespan — or impact — of The Skatalites. Since forming in 1964, the Jamaican-born ska pioneers have churned out 16 studio albums, helping pave the way for countless reggae and rocksteady artists in the process. Today, The Skatalites exist in the form of a nine-member touring band that includes founding members alto saxophonist Lester Sterling and vocalist Doreen Shaffer. On Thursday, April 11, Sterling and his skanking cohorts take to the stage at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club in support of Walk with Me, the band’s newest studio album, which features the last recordings of original Skatalite drummer Lloyd Knibb. I recently caught up with keyboardist Ken Stewart to discuss the band’s new record and nearly 50-year history.
Can you tell me a little bit about The Skatalites lineup nowadays? The Skatalites are composed of original members Lester Sterling on alto sax and Doreen Shaffer on vocals; bassist Val Douglas, and drummer Sparrow Thompson, from Kingston, Jamaica; Andrae Murchison from Georgia on trombone; Cameron Greenlee from N.Y.C. on keyboards; Aurelien Metsch (aka Natty Frenchy) from France on guitar; Azemobo Audu from Benin City via U.K. and N.Y.C. on tenor sax; and Travis Antoine from N.Y.C. on trumpet. The ages range from 23 to 77, yet the energy and integrity of the music remains intact.
How did Walk with Me come about? The recording began in late 2010 and finished around March 2012. Most tracks were done at Don One studios in Brooklyn, which is owned by a relative of Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. We were able to finish most rhythm tracks before the passing of Lloyd Knibb, and then it was finished in a few other places so we could get it the way we wanted. It was quite a team effort, and we are quite happy with the final product. Every member composed or cowrote a tune and contributed in every way to the end result.
How did you come up with the album’s title? Is there a story behind it? The title was taken from the name of the tune written by our trombonist. It suggests that all of our former members are walking with us as we continue their legacy and journey to spread this music around the world.
The idea of making a tribute album to past members suggests something mournful, but Walk with Me is very energetic and upbeat, kind of like a celebration of life. This is following in the Jamaican tradition to reflect on and change what could be considered unpleasant circumstances into that celebration of life you refer to. It has been commented before that Don Drummond’s compositions often have these haunting melodies and minor keys, yet project an energy that makes people dance their troubles away. The vibe of this was created while Lloyd was still with us, but the music has the ability to transform our grief into joyous and positive vibrations.
How does this record fit into The Skatalites’ catalog? The compositions show the prolific talents of the individuals and the ability to combine efforts to create a sound as authentic and unique as ever, despite the new faces and personalities involved.
What is it about this music that keeps people listening all these years later? Infectious rhythms, inspiring melodies and harmonies, lyrical soloing, and the interactions between all the musicians creates an energy that keeps people dancing all night long. The Skatalites’ music is timeless.
The Skatalites play SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Thursday, April 11, with Nahko and Medicine for the People. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and showtime is 9 p.m. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for tickets and info.