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The Skatalites, In Russia with Love

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The Skatalites. In Russia with love
8 Jun 2001

With some band members over 70 years old, the Skatalites are morethan just a living legend – they are a real-life embodiment of music. The band, widely recognized for virtually inventing ska, visited Russia recently and performed in St. Petersburg and two Moscow venues, the Restavratsiya club and DK Gorbunova.

The Skatalites came together in Kingston, Jamaica, during the mid-1960s. It was a revolutionary time. The island had recently won independence from Britain and a young Bob Marley had yet to bring reggae to the world. The suspense of ska, though, hung in the air like a cloud.

Rhythm ‘n' Blues had recently blown into the Caribbean from New Orleans and was still working its way through the region's rich, cultural filters, forming new musical styles that would soon have a profound influence on music across the world. Arguably it was the Skatalites that opened the floodgates; as the fathers of ska they can also claim enormous responsibility for reggae, dub and rock-steady.

The group's two Moscow concerts invoked contradictory feelings, with two very different crowds. The gig atmospheres couldn't have have been more dissimilar.

The first concert at Restavratsiya, a club geared to the noveaux riches, was reminiscent of a scene from the America of the 1920s, with poor black jazzmen playing their "wild" music for the prosperous, extravagant white upper classes. Most people were eating and conversing, while a few bopped their heads occasionally. A dozen people, dancing by the stage, embraced the music's sunny essence, but they were in the minority.

In contrast, a crowd of close to 2,000 at Gorbushka (DK Gorbunova) was completely tuned into the groups "positive vibrations." Jumping, smiling and joking, people in the audience formed Conga lines, learned how to pronounce the exclamation "Awwllrrrright!!" and sung along for more than two hours with Doreen Shaffer, the old-time jazz singer touring with the group.

At Gorbushka, the musicians played everything from catchy and groovy ska tunes to slow rock-steady songs. After astounding solo improvisations, the band would come smoothly back, together pumping the crowd up, at end of songs like "El Pussycat," "Trip to Mars" and "Guns of Navarone" with Shaffer singing "Sugar Sugar" and other numbers in a voice that was straight out of the 50s.

The history of the Skatalites is loaded with legends: the young Bob Marley played with them, and, reputedly, even wanted to join the group; the Skatalites were part of the prolific "Studio One" recording company; and so on.

The original group consisted of some of the island's most virtuoso musicians that included trombonist Don Drummond (who was arrested in 1965 for murder), tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook, bassist Lloyd Brevitt and drummer Lloyd Knibb (the latter two still play). In 1965 the musicians went their own way, forming lesser-known groups that continued to influence the music scene.

Then the Skatalites reunited in the 1990s, and the original group members found fresh talent to fill in the spaces rendered empty by the passage of time.

Here in Russia, ska, dub and reggae have recruited a large following over recent years. More and more people can be seen on Moscow's streets in sunny wild clothes and braided hair. At the DK Gorbunova concert, it turned out that these "converts" could even convincingly drone out the essential Jamaican mantras "Jah" and "Rastafari."

However Brevitt, reminiscent of a spiritual shaman, preferred roaring "Ayayayaayya" to the crowd before each song, effectively conveying the groovy mood, and thumping out a couple of fun, funky solos that lasted up to five minutes on his big double bass.

The musicians changed the song title of "From Russia with Love" to "In Russia with love," a point that they emphasized repeatedly.

It is normal for artists to talk about their music being about love and about music spreading love all over the world. But the Skatalites' beaming tunes are indisputably the most convincing. "Skatalites is love for all," Brevitt kept repeating.

Actually he didn't mean "Love." He meant "Lllloooovvve," and I believed him.

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