“The best show I’ve ever been involved with”
Count Skylarkin (after The Skatalites show in April 2007)
One year ago, 18 months of negotiations and preparations finally resulted in The Skatalites appearing onstage in Oxford at one of the last concerts to take place in the old Zodiac. It was a truly electric evening, with an unparalleled atmosphere. Moreover, it was a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled for me personally – to step onstage and introduce the men that forged the distinctive “SKA” sound that ruled the Jamaican dancehalls in the 1960’s; that crossed over to Britain and the world via skinheads, Trojan Records and groups like The Specials; that has obsessed me since I first heard the basslines booming out of Brixton market as a teenager.
The Skatalites were Jamaica’s first supergroup. Famously, the nucleus of the band was formed at Kingston’s Alpha Boys School, a facility for wayward youths run by Roman Catholic nuns. The cream of Kingston’s 1960’s musical talent, their idiosyncratic sound combined Caribbean folk and calypso tradition with a big side order of New Orleans brassbound rhythm & blues. It was the celebratory soundtrack of a newly independent island. For the very first time, Jamaica was making recorded music aimed squarely at its own people. And what music! Scorching instrumentals like ’Guns Of Navarone’ and ’Phoenix City’ would of course become infamous in the UK, having been imported via black communities all over London. But the heart-melting four-part horn harmonies on ’Musical Communion’, ’Eastern Standard Time’ and ’Freedom Sounds’ are so bright – brimming with wide-eyed optimism, self-determination and hope – the sound of a nation standing up and defining itself and its culture on the world stage.
As Coxsone Dodd’s house band, they recorded with everyone from Alton Ellis to Prince Buster, from Lord Tanamo to Desmond Dekker. When a teenage Bob Marley and The Wailers first walked into Studio One and sang ’One Love’, they were backed by The Skatalites. 40 years later, Damian ’Jr Gong’ Marley heavily sampled their ska classic ’Nimrod’ on ’All Night’ from the multi platinum “Welcome To Jamrock” LP. Time after time, their legacy refuses to be forgotten. Sadly founding members like the great Don Drummond, Jackie Mittoo, Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook are no longer with us. But on May 3rd the people of Oxford have a second, precious opportunity to pay homage to the surviving originators of ska and reggae. Believe me, when Lester Sterling strikes up the solo to ’Musical Communion’, mine won’t be the only moist eye in the house. Again.
Support comes from Oxford’s own Nine Ton Peanut Smugglers and Skylarkin’ Soundsystem DJs Count Skylarkin & Indecision. This one’s an early show (doors open at 6:30, and there’s a strict 10pm curfew), but rest assured there’ll be an afterparty nearby that you’re all invited to!
Lester “Ska” Sterling
Saturday May 3rd
Oxford Academy, 190 Cowley Road, Oxford
6:30pm-10pm; £18.50 adv (inc. afterparty at The Hi Lo Jamaican Eating House)
Photos from The Skatalites at Skylarkin’ Soundsystem in 2007, copyright Jamaway Photography