The Legends of Ska
At Palais Royale
in Toronto on Friday
There's a corner of the music business that works a lot like The Antiques Roadshow. Someone comes in with a neglected treasure from the attic. The thing gets a quick but thorough examination in public. With luck, it turns out to be worth a few million records, just like the Buena Vista Social Club or the music from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Some time soon, old-time ska may be coming down from the attic for its chance at a drastic revaluation. That seemed to be part of the plan behind two extraordinary nights of music by a busload of stars from the Jamaican music scene in the early sixties.
It was both a concert and a film shoot, with cameras swarming the stage to capture footage for a documentary by Mark Johnston (best known for In the Shadow of a Saint, a film about Ken Wiwa). This seemed a wise move, because as the producers behind O Brother, Buena Vista and The Antiques Roadshow all know, you've got to have cameras to get full value from your treasures.
Original ska was a peppery broth made by stirring up-tempo R&B, Afro-Caribbean mento music and jazz into one pot. The style, whose most characteristic trait is its propulsive off-beat accents, dominated Jamaican popular music during the island's first optimistic years of independence.
Ska faded in Jamaica with the advent of reggae, though its basic elements have been revived at least twice by later generations of musicians in Britain and North America. No doubt that accounted for the relatively young crowd at Friday's show.
The talent included a 12-piece incarnation of the Skatalites (several of them from the original band), and stars such as Derrick Morgan, Roy Wilson, Lord Creator, Alton Ellis and DJ King Stitt. The only comparable gathering of ska pioneers was Saturday's show, which featured the Skatalites with Prince Buster, Stranger Cole, Justin Hinds and Lord Tanamo.
With so many soloists, and each limited to three or four songs, Friday's concert became a live greatest-hits compilation. It also showed how voraciously accepting the style was of whatever happened to be floating on the radio waves across the Gulf of Mexico.
Owen Gray summed it up concisely, with a four-song set that included ska transfigurations of American gospel, soul, and rock 'n' roll. Derrick Morgan's dynamic turn at the microphone was ruled by a fast skipping beat adapted from boogie-woogie, and the Skatalites' opening set included a wide-open jam on the James Bond theme.
The band by itself pulled ska furthest toward jazz. Its basic procedure was to build an unshakable groove in the rhythm section, then insert solos by the likes of Lynn Taitt (guitar), Johnny Moore (trumpet) and Rico Rodriguez, whose terse yet wildly liberating blasts on trombone tore through the band like a tropical storm.
After their initial rampage, the Skatalites applied themselves to the more rudimentary business of accompanying the hits. Some of these, including Morgan's Forward March and Roy Wilson's Manny Oh, still had a freshness and bounce that almost erased the four decades that have passed since they were written.
Others, including all of Winston Samuels's tunes, evoked the dustiest simplicities of early sixties pop. Time had worn on almost every voice, though Alton Ellis could still convert a key phrase in Breaking Up into a moan of keenest pain and pleasure.
Ellis sang to a fairly sparse crowd, and even at the peak of the night the hall was never too crowded for dancing. That was good for those overcome with awe at the sight and sound of so many old favourites, but possibly bad news for any wider revival for old-time ska. If a city such as Toronto can't pack a club-sized venue for a show like this, can the music ever win big at The Antiques Roadshow? We'll have to wait for the film to know for sure.