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Teaching the old ska new licks

by The Concordian October 25, 2011

The Skatalites, who have been labelled as the grandfathers of ska, and are credited for inspiring musical genres such as reggae, funk and punk rock, may be getting younger and younger, but still know how to bridge gaps and get a party started just as they did in Jamaican dance halls nearly half a century ago.

Lester “Ska” Sterling is the band’s only original member, but he certainly hasn’t lost the raw talent and boogie-woogie swagger of his early days. The new guys have stepped in and stepped it up to fill some big shoes and give fans the jazzy, brass-heavy sound that epitomizes classic ska.

Trombonist Andrae Murchison, one of The Skatalites’ newest and youngest members, is honoured to be playing with the band because he’s helping carry on its legacy.

After all, The Skatalites have collaborated with legendary artists like Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, and Jimmy Cliff. They’ve earned a massive fan base that circles the world and have been hailed by critics as one of the most influential pop bands of the 20th century.

Val Douglas, who joined as a bass guitarist in 2005, says that the new guys are often spotted while playing gigs with other bands, and that they do a lot of research before they join. “They’re deep into the music,” he says.

And even after all the tours and albums, tenor saxophonist Azemobo Audu still insists that playing with The Skatalites is always exciting and that the band surprises him daily.

“It may be a new tool, or new guitar, or a new lick,” he says. “Sometimes the music just changes on its own.”

The Skatalites’ recent headlining performance at Club Soda for the Montreal Ska Festival was fuelled by these little surprises. Each member brought his or her own unique energy, especially during improvised solos. “We plan the space but what happens in it is up to the musician,” says Douglas.

Audu’s tenor sax solo on the classic song “Phoenix City,” for example, was a romantic and charming throwback to the early days of American rhythm and blues, backed by trumpet player Kevin Batchelor’s aggressive yips and yelps that have become so much a part of The Skatalites’ sound and the ska genre itself.

Then there’s the legendary Doreen Shaffer, the smooth and soulful songstress who takes the stage as the “Queen of Ska.” She’s been singing love songs with The Skatalites for over 40 years, and when she begs “Please don’t break my heart in two” on their hit song “Can’t You See” it’s a wonder why anyone would ever want to.

And while he’s lucky to have such a fine and talented roster of young musicians to help bring the band’s hits to life, it’s Lester “Ska” Sterling who really gets the crowd going.

Lighting up the stage at Club Soda in a gold and silver, sequined-appliqué t-shirt (a perfect match for his larger-than-life personality) Sterling wooed the eager crowd with his often tender, always meaty, alto sax licks.

His sweet smile, fist pumps and calls for “One love!” drew the diverse crowd in a wave of mohawks, dreadlocks, purple, bald, and salt-and-peppered heads toward the stage, pulsating with excitement.

The Skatalites’ recent stop in Montreal kicked off their 2011 (mainly) European tour and fans can expect to get their first taste of a new Skatalites album by next January.

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