Skatalites continue to jam

By Alex Stedman

Band breakups are all too common, but some bands stay active for decades.

Since its formation in 1964, Jamaican ska band The Skatalites has released 15 studio albums and had a number of lineup changes after a few band members died.

The current members—Lester Sterling, alto saxophone; Doreen Shaffer, vocals; Azemobo Audu, tenor saxophone; Andrae Murchison, trombone; Kevin Batchelor, trumpet; Val Douglas, bass guitar; Natty Frenchy, guitar; Cameron Greenlee, keyboard and Trevor Thompson, drums—were in Chicago Oct. 20 to promote the band’s new album, “Walk with Me.” Douglas talked with The Chronicle about the band’s past, Bob Marley and bringing in new members.

The Chronicle: How long have you been with the band?

Val Douglas: I’ve been with the band since 2005, but I grew up [listening to] the band as a kid back home [in Jamaica].

With all the lineup changes over the years, how have The Skatalites kept it going?

The wealth of music that the band has put down since the ’60s is so strong that new members take that and respect it and apply new things to it. So the transition is very smooth. One person will leave, and one person will replace them.

What’s it like to be in a band considered to be one of the forefathers of reggae and ska?

For me, it’s an honor to carry on this heritage. It’s really good music. Like I said, I grew up on the music. I used to dance to that music as a kid, and these are my heroes. To be carrying on their stuff is really amazing to me.

How have you seen their music change after all these years?

All of our music has changed around a bit, like dance songs and stuff like that. But we still play the musical descendants of ska, which is rocksteady and reggae. Most of our repertoire is ska. We still play genuine ska because that is a genre by itself.

You guys recorded with Bob Marley a long time ago. Would you say he still influences your work?

Actually, it’s kind of hard to say Bob Marley influenced our work. It can even be the other way around, because when Bob Marley was recording with The Skatalites, they were the hot new thing. When Bob Marley came in, he would sing his song, but he would tell them all to play their stuff. So technically, The Skatalites actually influenced him. That was much later in the reggae era, and it was a good thing because when he played, he was part of a happening group in the recording studios.

How have you seen the reggae scene change over the years?

[Now] it’s very dance-like beats with less of a concentration on the lyrical content. It kind of strayed away from the serious lyrical content. But ska and reggae [is] music that [was] made for protests, serious things. And then the dance things came, and [lyrics] kind of took a backseat. But good music—serious lyrics—will always come back around. The Skatalites have always been mostly an instrumental band influenced by jazz, influenced by classical, influenced by Latin melodies too. We work with different beats, and that can be an experience. So that seems to kind of live through a new kind of detour. But it comes back around to the really good music with heart.

Do you think The Skatalites will ever stop making music?

There’s no need for it to end. I don’t see it like that. The music itself is so strong, and what we’re trying to do is keep that alive. We’ve just become a part of this movement, so every day we [keep] the music going.

For more information on The Skatalites, and their album “Walk with Me,” visit Skatalites.com.

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