MADE IN JAMAICA
Independence came to Jamaica in 1962. The musical soundtrack of this era was the upbeat, energised Ska - the first truly modern Jamaican music. Based on the offbeat, Ska mixed together US jump-up Rhythm and Blues with indigenous Jamaican music such as Mento to produce a unique sound.
Ska music and Studio One records are virtually synonymous. Whilst Studio One would release many styles of Reggae during its forty year history - Rocksteady, Roots, Dancehall, Dub and the rest - Ska was the first and gave Jamaican music it's own identity throughout the world. the inspiration for the rhythm of Ska came from the Southern US Rhythm and Blues records that Coxsone Dodd had discovered while working as a migrant farm worker in Florida in the 1950s. It was here that he decided to start a sound-system on returning to Jamaica. Back home he began importing R'n'B records that soon became the staple music of any Kingston dance. Amongst the important R'n'B artists of the day for Jamaicans were Roscoe Gordon, Wynonie Harris, Amos Milburn, Fats domino and Louis Jordon. Listening back to these records it is possible to hear the roots of this new Jamaican sound.
The second most important element of Ska was the Jazz that the Alpha Boys School educated musicians brought to this new music. Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond and Johnny Moore - the frontline horns of The Skatalites - all attended the Alpha School. Alongside many other great musicians such as Joe Harriott, Rico Rodriguez and Wilton Gaynair, the boys were taught Classical, Military and Jazz music under the strict supervision of the Catholic nuns who ran the school. One of the music directors was Lennie Hibbert who himself would record for Studio One. The Jamaican big band leaders such as Eric Deans recruited many new band members after they left Alpha: Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso and Johnny Moore all spent time with the Deans Orchestra.
Don Drummond, the most progressive of the musicians who attended Alpha, was also, unfortunately, the most troubled - to the extent that he would at times register himself into mental health care. Drummond's complex personality had nonetheless a positive influence on the Skatalites: many of the groups most haunting songs were written by Drummond, who was as much inspired by his Rastafarian faith as by the new modal Jazz in America. Johnny Moore recalls that Drummond learnt his modal styling by post, sending and receiving material from a music course in the US.
Although strict, the nuns encouraged the musicians. Sister Ignatius, who ran the school, encouraged the musicians to play and even had a record deck in the school so the boys could dance to Ska!.
By the late 1950s the sound-system dominated the Kingston music scene. Alongside Coxsone's downbeat Soundsystem you would find sounds such as Duke Reid the Trojan, King Edwards and many more. The music was strictly US R'n'B and Jazz. As the competition increased for exclusive tracks to play, Coxsone began recording one-off acetate records to play solely on his Downbeat Soundsystem. The music he first recorded was a Jamaican interpretation of American Rhythm and Blues and for this he hired musicians such as Cluett Johnson and The Blues Blasters and Herman Hersang's City Slickers, recording in the various studios around Kingston such as Ken Khouri's federal Studios. Coxsone soon became aware of the large potential audience for this music and by the 1960s was releasing records commercially on a wide range of his own record labels - Worldisc, Supreme, Cariboo, Coxsone, Sensational, Muzik City, Rolando & Powie and more!
In 1963 Coxsone opened his own studio at 13 Brentford Road, Kingston. He named the building (and his new label) studio One and set about defining the future sound of Jamaican music.
Coxsone employed the musicians on a weekly wage basis to write new songs and rhythms. At first the recording equipment was a one-track tape recorder, meaning that all songs were recorded live. When the equipment became two-track the musicians would record all week, and the singers came to the studio in the evening and weekends. The in-house band at the start featured many future members of the Skatalites. It was not until 1964 that they actually gave themselves the name The Skatalites. the Skatalites were Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso (tenor saxes), Lester Sterling (alto sax), Don Drummond (trombone), Johnny Moore (trumpet), Jackie Mittoo (piano), Jah Jerry or Ernest Ranglin (guitar), Lloyd Brevett (bass) and Lloyd Knibb (drums) and they became the house band at Studio One. The Skatalites dominated Ska. As well as playing on every record made at Studio One during this time, they also played on a large number of recordings for other producers such as Duke Reid (Treasure Isle Records) and Justin Yap (Top Deck). As they were exclusively signed to Studio One, this moonlighting often involved slight alterations of the original line-up, or recording under a different name.
The Skatalites brought a wide variety of influences into the music. Ska could include Jazz, Pop, jump-up R'n'B, westerns and other film soundtracks, easy listening and even Classical music. Additionally Don Drummond, Johnny Moore and Roland Alphonso regularly spent time playing music at Count Ossie's Rastafarian encampment in the hills of Kingston.
Songs such as "President Kennedy", based on a Cuban rhythm popularised by Mongo Santamaria and UK mod Georgie Fame sit next to melancholic instrumentals such as "Scambalena". You will also find gospel Ska from The Maytals, alongside storming dancehall classics such as "Arte Bella" and Eastern-flavoured modal songs such as "El Bang Bang". the artists who The Skatalites backed in turn, also brought their own influences into the music lyrically. Joe Higgs' "Song My Enemies Sing" is inspired by Kahil Gabran. The youthful Rude Boy culture that was beginning to enter the dancehall also became the subject of many Ska songs, whether for them or against them, by groups such as The wailers and The Ethiopians.
The Skatalites were perhaps too good to last. In 1963 the Jamaican government sent a delegation to the World's Fair in America to promote Jamaican music, specifically Ska. the visit was organised by government minister Edward Seaga, who chose Byron Lee and The Dragonaires over The Skatalites. that the uptown middle-class bandleader Byron Lee had no connection with Ska was clear to everyone involved, and The Skatalites felt rejected by the establishment. More dramatically, in 1965 Don Drummond killed his girlfriend, the dancer Marguerita, and then gave himself up to the police.
VIDEOS: A Brief History Of Ska