Heroes of Ska: Interview with The Skatalites' Lloyd Brevett
by anna battista
"I didn't even know that the music was going to be serious. I didn't know it was going to go all over the world." Roland Alphonso, quoted in Solid Foundation - An Oral History of Reggae by David Katz
It's an ordinary evening in 1964, but something very special is happening in a club somewhere in Jamaica. A band is playing at the Hi Hat Club in Rae Town. Their sound is new, their beat irresistible. They're the Skatalites and their music is so powerful that they will soon become resident musicians at the Bournemouth Club, where Lee Scratch Perry will often join them on percussion. Though the Skatalites have just officially formed, some of their members have already played together since the late '40s. The Skatalites' line up in 1964 includes tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook, trombonist Don Drummond, bassist Lloyd Brevett, tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso, alto saxophonist Lester Sterling, drummer Lloyd Knibb, trumpeter Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore, rhythm guitarist Jerry Haines and pianist Jackie Mittoo. Alphonso, Knibb and Brevett knew each other since they were teenagers and used to play together at the Coney Island amusement park in Kingston, Jamaica. Alphonso and Sterling both started their career as musicians recording for Coxsone Dodd, while Drummond, Moore, Sterling and McCook attended the same school in the '40s, the Alpha Catholic Boys establishment where they received their musical education. The Skatalites' music will mark an era, their tracks such as "Guns Of Navarone", "Ball Of Fire", "Tear Up" and so on, will represent the sound of a new independent Jamaica.
Forty years have passed from that night in the Hi Hat Club. During these years Don Drummond, Tommy McCook and Rolando Alphonso died, the Skatalites disbanded, then reunited with other musicians, and finally resurfaced. In the new incarnation of the band, here are only three members who were part of the original line-up: Lloyd Brevett on double bass, Lloyd Knibb on drums and Lester 'Ska' Sterling on alto sax. Other members now are Devon James on guitar, Ken Stewart on keyboards (also the manager of the band), Cedric 'Im' Brooks on tenor sax, Kevin Batchelor on trumpet, Vin Gordon on trombone and Kim Miller, a new vocalist. Last year the Skatalites toured Europe and the States. In February they will do another gig in Matunick; then, possibly, they will start recording a new album. "I'm enjoying touring a lot," Lloyd Brevett states, smiling. We are in the backstage of the Carling Academy in Glasgow, Scotland. Brevett is sitting on a battered sofa in the Skatalites' dressing room. His wife Ruth is sitting next to him, random members of the band surround them, some are chatting, and some are having a drink and a rest after having played to a very enthusiastic audience. While Lloyd talks, his ornaments (pendants and rings) clink, his dreadlocks, now whitening, swish here and there, his eyes shine with a special sparkle of light…perhaps that same sparkle that shone in his eyes when the Skatalites started their career. "There was a good vibe tonight," Brevett whispers to me in his Jamaican accent, "but I think there is always a good vibe wherever and whenever the Skatalites play. The Skatalites never get tired or stressed. Nothing has changed since 1964, apart from one thing: wherever we go now on tour, anywhere in the world, there are more people who come to see us. More young people follow us either in Europe, the States, Russia or Japan, we have more fans and a worldwide consensus."
"People who don't suffer like us can't perform that sound - it's a sufferer's sound. No middle class Jamaicans can play the music we play; it's a ghetto sound that we play out of instruments, real suffering ghetto sound. It sound happy, yes, for it's relief!" Rico Rodriguez, quoted in Solid Foundation - An Oral History of Reggae by David Katz
Jamaican music first changed when Prince Buster introduced Count Ossie's burru drumming in the track "Oh Carolina". Burru drumming is characterised, as Geoff Parker and James Dutton write in the sleevenotes to the Legendary Skatalites in Dub album (Motion Records, 2002, 2003), by "the bass, funde and repeater drums, the larger bass drum marking time while the two smaller drums improvise in a call and response drum conversation." It was anyway with the Skatalites that Jamaican music changed forever. The Skatalites practically created a new rhythm. "We were the first musicians who started ska, the very first," Lloyd Brevett states. "We took the melody out of calypso and put it down to our beat. I know that there are people now claiming they started ska, but they didn't. The Skatalites were the very first ska band. All these people who are playing ska now weren't even born when we were playing. Roland Alphonso, Lord Tanamo, Lester Sterling and I started ska in 1957-58, it was born with us. We made the first session in 1959 on a two-track tape. At that time I played the stand-up bass that my dad had made for me in 1949 and we put a microphone on the bass to record its sound. That was The Skatalites' very first music." Founder of the Count Brevett Band in 1950, Brevett's father usually created his own instruments and had taught his son how to play the bass. It can be said that he was one of the biggest musical influences in Lloyd's life. "My dad was a very good jazz bassist, he was actually very good at playing also other instruments such as the saxophone," Brevett remembers.
In 1958 Jamaica entered the Federation of the West Indies together with the twelve territories of the English-speaking Caribbean, but at the 1961 referendum, people voted against the federation. In August 1962 Jamaica regained its independence. Brevett states ska is the voice of Jamaican independence and the Skatalites represent independence itself. "When we played for the independence right in Kingston," he underlines, "nearly ten thousand people came to see us."
In 1964, Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff, Monty Morris and Millie Small appeared at New York World's Fair, backed by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and they introduced the American audience to what they claimed was the purest and most exceptional ska. The thing is that the real ska wasn't theirs; it was mastered by the Skatalites', but they hadn't been invited to the party. "At that time, our government sent off a set of musicians to New York," Brevett explains, "Byron Lee was a sort of politician, he was into politics a lot, so he was chosen to go there while they tried to keep the Skatalites back." Critics say ska finished when Don Drummond killed dancer Marguerita Mahfood. "Don Drummond had gone off his head and killed his wife, Marguerita on New Year's Day 1965," Brevett remembers, "Marguerita forgot to give him his medicines before going out to dance and when she came back he got off his head and killed her. Don Drummond was convicted and this event contributed to the end of the Skatalites." After the Skatalites split up, Tommy McCook became the leader of Duke Reid's band The Supersonics, whereas Roland Alphonso stayed with Coxsone Dodd at Studio One and later formed The Soul Vendors.
"The break-up of the band meant the ska era was over in Jamaica, but nearly fifteen years later a group of black and white musicians in the English Midlands revived the music of the Skatalites and Prince Buster for the Two-Tone movement; another decade on, white Americans brought in the 'third wave' of ska, and even Japanese groups successfully re-created the genre. In addition, the Skatalites re-formed themselves on several occasions and McCook and Alphonso were blowing ska right up until their deaths in the late 1990s." David Katz, Solid Foundation - An Oral History of Reggae
In 1998 a London based record label, Motion Records, managed by James Dutton, released for the first time an album of sessions recorded in 1975 by the Skatalites and mixed by King Tubby, remixer and undisputed dubmaster killed in 1989. The album, partly recorded at King Tubby's Studio One and entitled Heroes of Reggae in Dub, included alternative dub versions of the Skatalites' original sessions and was later followed by Herb Dub Collie Dub (Motion Records, 2001). "Some of the guys in the Skatalites were Studio One musicians," Brevett remembers. "All these great guys such as Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Prince Buster, they all used to come to Studio One and record there. King Tubby was a nice, gentle guy, he was very helpful and really helped a lot of musicians. He also put together 'African Roots Dub' and played on it together with my brother Commodore, my nephew Tony and my wife Ruth."
Motion released last year the Legendary Skatalites in Dub album, including the rest of the 1975 sessions recorded at Lee Scratch Perry's Black Ark Studio and Aquarius Studio. Brevett's inspiration for the sessions recorded on this album was "the drumming that provided the beating heart of the marathon chanting and reasoning sessions held at rasta camps in and around Kingston," as Geoff Parker and James Dutton explain in the album sleveenotes. Legendary Skatalites in Dub was released on CD in 2002 and on vinyl in December 2003. Among the tracks featured in the vinyl version there are also "Middle East Dub", "Seven Seal", "African Roots Dub" and "Starlight" (the latter featuring Tony Brevett). Legends of reggae Ernest Ranglin (on guitar) and Augustus Pablo (on keyboards) also feature on the album among the other musicians.
Brevett still believes in the Skatalites and when asked why their albums are being re-released he shrugs and claims, "Skatalites are still very strong", then he pauses for what seems like a long long second and continues, "Skatalites are actually going from strength to strength and we're planning to go in the studio this year to record new tracks. At present we have a few records out apart from the re-releases. There is also a live album recorded in Paris in 2002, From Paris With Love, that features original trumpeter Johnnie 'Dizzy' Moore. But we're going to write new tunes soon," Brevett concludes, beatifically smiling, distracted by the members of the band surrounding him, asking him if he's finished because the Skatalites are awaited at an after-show party. Yet, it's impossible not to use this occasion to ask Brevett a last question about where the word "ska" comes from. Indeed there are those who say it comes from "skavoovie", "Oh, no, it doesn't!" he exclaims, shaking his head, "'Skavoovie' is a guy who plays the bass, a fellow musician. Before ska came in, if you greeted anyone you'd say 'Hey, hello skavoovie!' But the word 'ska' doesn't come from that. 'Ska' comes from the upbeat rhythm, from the guitar playing the upbeat in the studio. The sound of the guitar would then be 'ska-ska-ska-ska', 'ta-ta-ta-ta-sk-ska-ska' and that's where the name came from." Lloyd Brevett seems tired, he has got to go and join the rest of the band for the after show party. He's got to celebrate, and it's time for me to leave. I tell him the history of ska and of the Skatalites, like the history of Jamaica, is full of joy and pain, yet it's a beautiful story. Brevett smiles and nods, his eyes sparkle. Perhaps he's mulling over the old times, most probably he's thinking about the Skatalites' future and a new year full of releases and the rhythms of ska.