Last Wednesday, February 27, there was not one unhappy soul at the Howard Theatre. The legendary Skatalites headlined a night of happy music where ego was left behind. They played for the mods and the ska-heads. They played for rockers and the raggamuffins. They played for the old and young. They played for the ages.
But before the Skatalites started their act. The crowd got a double dose of Latin-Caribbean flavor. The opening act, Gallo (pronounced Gah-yo), fused skank rhythms with ballady vocals. The band, lead by two brothers from Los Angeles, adorned the stage with Rastafarian-themed flags. Their one-of-a-kind stage presence could’ve been a screen capture of the vibrant Venice Beach live music scene.
After Gallo exited stage, DC’s beloved Lucky Dub raised the happy gauge a little bit more with their caffeinated island ensemble act. Formed in 2008, the Wammy-nominated Lucky Dub made the rounds at venues all across District, such as the Black Cat and Jammin’ Java. Lead singer Gordon Daniels yet again proved himself a storyteller who uses his tenor as a compass, steering the band’s endless musical journeys to the groove of their audience.
The rift between the diners and dancers disappeared by the time the Skatalites entered. Coming off the energy of the previous acts, the ska band’ instrumental songs were smooth and uplifting. At one point the band fancied the theatre with a ska take on John Barry’s “James Bond Theme.”
The crowd danced non-stop to other familiar tunes, such as “Magic Star,” a B-side track often played live by the group, giving is some A-side appeal. Lester Sterling, one of two surviving members of the legendary band, was sort of the default leader. Diminutive in size, Sterling charmed the audience with his teddy-bear-like presence; his direction of the band never floated adrift.
The band consisted of sax and horn players, guitarists, a keyboardist and a drummer. As a whole, they were a mirror-reflection of the fans who came to see them, an inter-generational mix of music lovers. The members seem to be living the dream, playing music they genuinely enjoy. The Howard Theatre crowd was not bashful in showing their support for the on-stage talent.
Doreen Shaffer, the other surviving member of the ska group, came on stage mid-show to perform with the men. Known as the “Queen of Ska,” Shaffer graced the stage with a casual presence. A little woman with a simmering voice, Shaffer cast a smile on the crowd. It was all positive. Songs like “Can’t You See” and “You’re Wondering Now” played really well with the crowd, and Shaffer brought a welcome episode to the show. The audience swayed to her voice and simultaneously kept their collective eyes on her.
Doreen Shaffer has been one of voices behind the Skatalites since the early ’60s. There is no conceit on stage, no pretense that might call forth “diva.” She, along with the rest of the band, represents a kind of harmony rarely seen among bands. Unlike many contemporary pop bands, a break-up or a change in personnel isn’t wholly defined by ego. Sure, it happens. But in the light of such circumstances—and death, another factor—the band maintained its Jamaican compatriotism and stayed true to its core mission: making ska music.
And that’s why ska music is eternal.
Photos: Steven VanSickle