Almost golden, Skatalites still going strong

Fifty years is a long time for anything. But for a band, with long hours, tons of time on the road with your co-workers in and out of “the office,” it’s an eternity.

The music business remains a flammable, delicate, unstable crock of an industry riddled with surprises and very few guarantees; if you make it 50 years, you wear those decades as a badge of honor. The Skatalites aren’t quite at 50, but 48 years is close enough. The band’s current tour will pull through Durango tonight at the Abbey Theatre. Opening the show will be Cosmic Accident.

The current lineup of the Skatalites includes founding member Lester Young on alto sax, Doreen Schaffer on vocals, Azembo Audu on tenor sax, Andrae Murchison on trombone, Kevin Batchelor on trumpet, Val Douglas on bass, Natty Frenchy on guitar, Cameron Greenlee on keyboards and Trevor Thompson on drums.

Over the decades the band has grown into an institution. It’s difficult to use the word “band” for a group that’s had more than 30 different members; most of its founding core is deceased with the exception of Young and Schaffer. Yet for ska and reggae fans, they remain elder statesmen of music that has influenced not only reggae but ska, punk and acid jazz, along with scores of up-and-coming musicians who carry on the tradition and sound that came out of the influential Studio One of Kingston, Jamaica, decades ago.

Formed in 1963 in Jamaica, the Skatalites spent two years playing in their homeland before calling it quits and splitting into two different bands. They reformed in 1983 for the Reggae Sunsplash festival in Montego Bay, then continued to play shows after emigrating to the U.S.

They are the true originators of a sound Bob Marley made famous.

“The Skatalites created the music that originally fueled Marley toward that level of fame. The band has created the roots to the tree that has branched out into all these different genres,” said current band manager and former Skatalites keyboardist Ken Stewart. “Dub, dance-hall, ska-jazz, ska-core – these bands are all over the world. We haven’t been to one country yet where we didn’t find bands who are trying to emulate the Skatalites in a traditional fashion, or trying their own type of thing.”

The band remains busy, with tours around the world and the forthcoming release of a new album, featuring cuts with founding member Lloyd Knibb recorded just before his passing last year.

It’s playing live that keeps it real as they play the bar and small-clubs circuit for audiences that may not have even been born when they formed 48 years ago. It’s that energy from the listeners that serves as motivation to continue the touring grind.

“That’s what keeps them doing it,” Stewart said. “The energy they get to keep going comes from the audience. When they see the audience, it gives them the reason to keep it coming.”

Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu.