How can a band without most of its original lineup continue to go on?
The Skatalites' beautiful instrumental music preceded and influenced reggae when the band formed in 1964, but that was nearly 60 years ago. In 2023, only singer Doreen Shaffer is alive and performs with the band. For percussionist Larry McDonald, the way the Skatalites have continued as a legacy band follows an honorable musical tradition no one thinks twice about in the world of jazz or classical music.
"I think of it how you have the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras. They've both been dead a long time, but new musicians play their songbooks," McDonald says. "We play the Skatalites' charts. As the styles change, it changes how players play those songs. The arrangements will always stay the same."
At 85, McDonald's musical legacy is interwoven with the original Skatalites lineup.
"I played with all the original members before they even became a band. We all played in the hotel circuit in Jamaica," McDonald tells New Times.
It wasn't until the age of 24, after years of working day jobs, that McDonald began to work as a musician. "It was the mono recording days, so no one could make a mistake in the studio," he remembers. "I wasn't good enough yet to get much work then. I was not as good as the Skatalites, who were luminaries."
After years of working at a tax office and as a tallyman, where he'd go to the docks and count the bananas, McDonald decided to make a go at pounding the drums. "Back then, you didn't tell your parents after you went to school that you became a musician," he says. "Musicians had bad reputations. You weren't keen to tell your parents you were one of them." It was the early '60s, right as ska and rocksteady were blowing up around the island of Jamaica. Meanwhile, the Skatalites were defining the sound of ska on their own, collaborating with musical legends like the Wailers and Lee "Scratch" Perry.
Looking for musical gigs wherever he could find them, McDonald decamped to Mexico in 1967 to play with a limbo troupe. When he returned to Jamaica in 1969, the music scene was quickly changing.
"There was no talk of reggae in Mexico. When I got back, I tuned into the radio [and] a friend was a DJ, said hi to me on air, and played 'Long Shot Kick de Bucket' by the Pioneers. That was the first reggae song I heard," McDonald says. "It made me want to find out what the hell was going on. I'd done ska and rocksteady, but reggae was something new, and I wasn't going to be left behind."
Afterward, McDonald started researching indigenous Jamaican rhythms. "I took bits and pieces from all of them and put them together," he adds. He also found a way to incorporate his love of jazz into his playing. "I was a bebop head before anything. I still have that approach to music where you got to be fast on your feet. There's still elements of jazz and Latin music in what I play."
As McDonald was finding himself musically, including performing with Gil Scott-Heron in the U.S. for years, he returned to Jamaica in 1983, the same year that the Skatalites came out of hibernation to perform at the Reggae Sunsplash festival. Since then, the group has been touring in one configuration or another for the last four decades. McDonald joined the current iteration only a few years ago.
"A lot of the band came aboard when the original Skatalites were still playing. They know more about these songs than I do," McDonald says of his younger band members. "The bass player Val Douglas recorded with anyone Jamaican you ever heard of. Everyone in the band has a strong background. They make it so the Skatalites are Jamaica's legacy band."
The Skatalites. 7 p.m. Friday, January 27, at the Ground, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; thegroundmiami.com. Tickets cost $35 to $40 via eventbrite.com.