As the soundtrack to the Jamaican independence movement, ska is undeniably the product of the black musicianship of the Kingston ghettos.
The Skatalites defined the genre and its members all hailed from the disenfranchised sectors of Jamaican society, fostering its innovation in peripheral locales. But the island’s music scene has always been a curious beast. Dig a little deeper below the surface and you find that several of the most prominent players were born in Cuba of mixed parentage, and Trinidadians and Panamanians impacted the music too. Upper-class Jamaicans of European, Chinese and Levantine origin, such as Byron Lee, Carlos Malcolm, Ken Khouri and Chris Blackwell, came down from their exclusive residences uptown to immerse themselves in ska, being a big part of the process of helping the music to reach overseas audiences. But perhaps the most unexpected original ska connection comes not from elsewhere in the Caribbean, or even Britain or the USA. Rather, we need to head some 10,000 miles west, reaching all the way to Melbourne, Australia, to understand how the Caribs became such an important part of ska’s evolution. It is one of the least likely tales to grace the development of Jamaican popular music, and arguably one of the most influential.
The story begins in Melbourne during the mid-1950s, when guitarist Dennis Sindrey and his pianist friend Peter Stoddart were invited by impresario and erstwhile saxophonist Max Wildman to join drummer Lowell Morris in the house band at the Corroboree club in Surfer’s Paradise, a tourist hotspot near Gold Coast City, south of Brisbane. Since the venue had palm trees lining the stage and the band played a lot of Latin music, Wildman christened them the Caribs.
Wildman had travelled throughout the Far East and had also spent time in the Caribbean, where he fostered strong links in Haiti and Jamaica. He was friendly with Abe Issa, the owner of the Glass Bucket, then Kingston’s most celebrated nightclub, and Issa and his staff made repeated requests for Wildman to return to Jamaica with a new house band, since the club’s popularity was waning. Thus, in November 1958, the Caribs boarded a ship and travelled to Kingston. “We had no contract, no idea of where we would play, what we’d be paid, or anything like that,” says Sindrey. “But we wanted to travel, so we took a chance.”
At the Glass Bucket, the band backed local artists including Count Prince Miller, and became friendly with Chris Blackwell and other figures who would shortly become involved in Jamaica’s fledgling music industry. It turned out that the club was facing financial collapse due to a running problem with unpaid tabs, and despite Wildman’s best efforts, the Glass Bucket closed in 1959. The Caribs moved to the Myrtle Bank, Jamaica’s most prestigious hotel, where they would remain in residence the next few years. More importantly, they became the backing band for many of the earliest recording sessions conducted in Jamaica, including the very first sessions Chris Blackwell produced with Laurel Aitken, yielding the massive hit ‘Boogie In My Bones’. These sessions, and others with Owen Gray, Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards and the Blues Busters, were done clandestinely at radio station RJR, where another Australian, Graeme Goodall, was working. When Ken Khouri subsequently opened Federal recording studio, with Goodall his chief engineer, the Caribs were often in residence there too. Sindrey’s role in the shift from Jamaican rhythm and blues to ska in the early days of the Jamaican music industry is particularly important, since he was working as a contracted session player at Federal from 1959.
“I do claim to be the first guy that recorded ska, but not the guy that invented it.”
“Any of the pre-ska Jamaican hits, I’m probably 90% of those, if not more,” Sindrey explains. “And then when the ska came, I was on the ska for about a year or two, until the producers began having their own studios and were bringing their own musicians in. Later on I played some of the solos, but in the beginning most of the solo work was done by Ernie Ranglin.”
Sindrey says ska partly resulted from the particular instigation of future Studio One founder Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, who requested a different emphasis on the after-beat during a recording session at Federal. “I was working in the studio all the time, cutting 8-10 sides a day, probably 2-3 days a week, mainly for Clement Dodd, sometimes for Prince Buster and other independent producers, and some for Ken Khouri himself. But Coxsone came in the studio one day and said, ‘We want you to play a certain sound for the rhythm — we want a heavy offbeat.’ So I played with the down-stroke on the guitar, and they said, ‘No, it’s gotta be sharper,’ so I turned my treble control all the way up and they said, ‘No, that’s still not it.’ So then I decided to play it on the upstroke; instead of going from the lower strings to the higher, I went from the highers to the bottom, and they said, ‘Yeah! That’s it! Ska!’ Now, I don’t know whether that was the first time, and obviously they knew what they wanted, but I do claim to be the first guy that recorded ska, if not the guy that invented it.”
The Caribs thus featured on seminal recordings such as Keith and Enid’s ‘Worried Over You’, the Rhythm Aces’ ‘A Thousand Teardrops’, Lord Lebby’s cover of Louis Jordan’s ‘Caledonia’, Roland Alphonso’s ‘Hully Gully Rock’, and Don Drummond’s landmark ska, ‘Schooling The Duke’.
“Drummond and I got on pretty well, because I respected him, but the other musicians would tease him unmercifully,” says Sindrey of the reclusive trombonist. “He always carried this bottle with him, which was his mixture of herbs and ganja, which he would drink from time to time, and they’d tease him about that. Then he’d just withdraw into his shell, and he wouldn’t play as good. But he just had this lyric sense, and he knew not to play any more notes than you needed.”
When Sindrey recounts the strong working friendships he forged during ska’s early days, you get a sense of how crucial the Caribs were to the whole process. “Coxsone, I never had a problem with him. He’d just tell you what he wanted, you played it, and he was happy. I probably worked with Coxsone more than anyone else. Prince Buster is another guy that I love very much. In later years he used to put on this persona of the dark glasses and the bodyguard, like he was a mafia, but it was all just an act, because he was really a soft guy underneath. I liked Owen Gray from the start too. His singing was good, but his personality was even better. He was a nice guy and had great charisma.”
During the early 1960s, the Caribs had a period of inactivity once Lowell Morris decided to return to Australia with his Jamaican wife. Sindrey played in Byron Lee’s band for a while, followed by a stint in Kes Chin’s Souvenirs, where he was joined by Peter Stoddart, leading to recordings for Dada Tewari such as ‘Night Train’ and ‘Chop Suey Twist’. Sindrey had a sideline in radio jingles too. Then, in 1962, Sindrey and Stoddard reformed the Caribs with local drummer Billy Dean, bassist Lloyd Mason and vocalist Carl Reynolds to be the resident house band at the Sheraton, where they remained for many years. The popularity of their live show led to their inclusion on the 1963 album Let’s Have A Red Stripe Party, and the following year to their own LP, Caribbean Capers. Sindrey began recording calypso records as a solo artist around this time, releasing work with Lord Jellicoe, Lord Creator, Carlos Malcolm and himself on a label called Premier, which soon folded.
He went on to cut three calypso albums for Federal, A Treasure Chest Of Calypso, Too Hot To Handle, and The Pill, the latter with Lynn Taitt, the main architect of rock steady, as musical arranger. However, Sindrey decided to move to the States in 1968, so he missed out on reggae entirely, and though Stoddart kept the Caribs going for another couple of years, they remained a hotel act after Sindrey’s departure. But it’s important to note that neither severed their ties with Jamaica – Sindrey remains a regular visitor to the island, and Stoddart remained a Jamaican resident for the rest of his life, passing away at home on Boxing Day last year.
The importance of the Caribs was never lost on Jamaican audiences either. Indeed, such is their legacy that the band was honoured at a live gala on the island in 2012, aptly titled Tribute To The Greats.