The Skatalites—55 Years and Still Dancing

The Skatalites are reggae’s unsung heroes. Before they formed in 1964, the founding members were session musicians, and played on just about every song made in Jamaica for the previous 10 years. Members have played with reggae royalty Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and many more. Though they have seen their share of twists and turns, this new iteration features another impressive affinity. The current lineup features Doreen Shaffer, Natty Frenchy, Val Douglas, Azemobu Audu, Andre Murchison, Ken Stewart, and Trevor Sparrow Thompson.

Stewart, keyboardist since 1987 and manager since 1988, is optimistic about the band’s continued success.

How does it feel to be in a band for over 55 years?

I wasn’t a fan of Jamaican ska until I saw the Skatalites. I didn’t know what (ska) was, until I went to see them in Cambridge in 1987, which certainly changed my life.

The Skatalites have had a long history of lineup changes and reunions. Has this affected the fans’ reactions at all?

We do have some diehard fans that say, ‘So and so isn’t there; it’s not the Skatalites.’  We moved on as each one passed… it seems whoever’s standing there, (the music) is still loved.

The Skatalites have had a lot of members pass away. Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Brevett, Don Drummond, Jerry Haynes, and Lloyd Knibb.

Yes. Doreen is the only original member left.

The Skatalites have played backup with some pretty big acts in classic and modern dub, ska, and reggae. Do any of those names surprise you?

Yes, it’s a pretty large family to belong to and we continue to work with a lot of those artists. That started way back in the sixties. Still going on. Last year, we played with Julian Marley live in Colombia. That was the first time a Marley played live onstage with the Skatalites in about 50 years, but it was appreciated by our Colombian fans, and we had an absolute blast.  

Let’s talk about record labels. You were on Island, Trojan, Studio One labels, and more. How instrumental were they in spreading the Skatalites’ music?

The Skatalites were session musicians in the beginning. That’s why they formed the band because they played on every record that had been put out prior to 1963 as individual players. They became the core members; played on every damn record—and every hit that had come out in Jamaica within the past 8-10 years before they formed. They needed to go out and play the songs that had become hits and play them live and have people understand that this is us. The original band lasted about 14 months and then they discontinued because Don Drummond was in prison, but they continued their careers as individuals. They were all on the scene for a long time doing different things. With all the versions of the band, we switched a lot.

Two-Tone, the British take on ska, was crucial in revitalizing The Skatalites. Do you have any thoughts about it?

That’s what made them reform, especially when guys like the Police, the (English) Beat, the Clash… that was ska and I didn’t even know what that meant. To me, it was just a sort of pop. As an American youth, I didn’t know there was a thing called ska, two-tone, or any of it, but I knew I liked it. “Give it To Me” by J. Geils is a reggae song, same thing with Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er”, with a reggae beat and bass line. Reggae elements were popping up in these other genres.

Where in the world has the best fans?

80 percent of the places we play in are South America, Spain, and all of Central America. We do have a lot of Latin influence in the music. That’s our largest fan base, but we also have a large fan base in Japan. We also were the first Jamaican act to perform in Russia in 2001. They had all of the Studio One records; all things that got through the Iron Curtain. 

Ken, you’re a lifelong musician.  How old were you when you started playing?

Four. I’ve been playing since I was old enough to put my fingers on the piano.  My mom was a piano player and my dad was a tuba and trumpet player. I would play with my mom while dad played the tuba. I learned traditional jazz and blues, learned to improvise, and I’m still learning.

How is it being both member and a manager for a band?

I was instrumental in getting the band off the ground. I was in for about a year and we had the same manager as Toots and the Maytals, Third World, and Sister Carol. We performed ten shows in my whole first year. I scratched my head and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ I was instrumental in getting us on the Bunny Wailer tour, which happened in April 1989, where Bunny Wailer came to the U.S. for the first time, and he performed in places like Radio City Music Hall. 

What do you think of reggae, dub, and ska today?

I love it. There’s so much going on today. What’s great about ska is you can take one song, change one thing about it, and you create a slightly new subgenre of reggae.

What’s in store for the Skatalites in 2020?

We hope for some more heavy involvement with people mentioned earlier like the Marley family. We’re still celebrating our 55th anniversary, we’ll go back on tour mid-March. Last year, we were in Europe four times, and South America twice. We’re overdue for places like Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. As we speak, I’m working on something I can’t really give an announcement about, but there’s some very positive vibrations going on with the Skatalites.

Be sure to catch The Skatalites on January 3 at Brooklyn Bowl!