Ska Legends Take the Stage in Brooklyn

February 20th, 2012

The Skatalites – Brooklyn Bowl – February 18, 2012

Ska isn’t dead! It never died. You can, in fact, still hear it from the people who started it all. And on Saturday night the Skatalites came to Brooklyn Bowl to play to generations of rude boys who couldn’t get enough of those Jamaican rhythms. To provide just a little background for those who aren’t familiar, the Skatalites formed in 1964 in Jamaica. Many of the founding members met at the renowned Alpha Boys School in Kingston, a historic Catholic school known for its strong music program. Tommy McCook, Johnny Moore, Lester Sterling and other founding members took what they learned at music school and made the sound their own, in the process creating a new sound called ska. While the founding members disbanded in 1965, the group reunited in 1983 and has been together since, playing with a rotating cast of talented musicians. Alto saxophonist Lester Sterling is the last surviving member of the 10 original founders.

The set included Skatalites classics plus a random assortment of ska versions of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Dandy Livingstone‘s “A Message to You, Rudy” and the James Bond theme. Almost every song featured solo improvisations, giving each musician the chance to display his talents against the backdrop of ska upbeats. The show also had several guest appearances, including one by tenor saxophonist Rock Steady Freddy, who stole the show for a few moments with wailing sax improvisations that showcased musicianship usually only seen in jazz performances.

Doreen Shaffer, the Queen of Ska, provided vocals on favorites “Simmer Down,” “My Boy Lollipop” and “Nice Time,” a tribute to the late Bob Marley. The band closed with what’s now considered its theme, “Freedom Sound.” But the show’s best moments were in between songs with Lester Sterling flashing smiles. It was moving to see a legend alongside a talented roster of young and old musicians. And with their help, the Skatalites carry on the banner of ska, a genre Sterling helped create almost 50 years ago. One can’t help but wonder what he makes of such an extraordinary legacy. —Dan Rickershauser

Photos courtesy of Dan Rickershauser