Ska Cubano

Lee Henry goes back in time for the music that never was

Having got through two bowls of homemade punch and an evening of original Jamaican ska classics, myself and my friend Liam, a two-tone nut with a wardrobe to prove it, made our way to Belfast's Custom House Square for the Ska Cubano gig in the Square's Marquee.

'Nicely toasted', as some might say, we were ready for a musical experience like no other.

There was no warm-up act. Instead, a selection of salsa, calypso, ska and reggae tunes seeped forth from the speakers at a sociable volume.

The young hipsters at the back and the aging ska disciples at the front – seated beneath a ceiling of star-like bulbs - were indulging in the excitement of the 8th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, then in its third day.

Having played the West Belfast Festival in 2006, Ska Cubano had many first-hand fans in the crowd.Megumi Mesaku, by John Baucher

I chatted to a lady named Mary, 60-something and keen as mustard, about their 2006 performance, and voiced my concern that tonight might turn out to be something of a reserved, seated affair.

‘They may be sitting down now,’ said Mary, sipping a reasonably-priced vodka and coke, and pointing to the tables at the front. ‘ But not for long.’

Ska Cubano are a unique example of what might have happened had the Jamaican ska sound reached Cuban shores before the 1959 Revolution

The brain child of and the introduction of Castro’s communism. Peter A Scott, a British businessman who gave up his entrepreneurial aspirations in Jamaica and Cuba to fulfil his dream of bringing Cuban ska to life, Ska Cubano are a musical genre unto themselves, a fusion of Jamaican ska rhythms and native Cuban inventions like mambo and son.

Taking to the stage in a flurry of dreadlocks and baggy trousers, this supergroup of Cuban, Jamaican, English and Japanese musicians fitted up their instruments and surveyed the crowd like a band of prizefighters waiting for the bell.

Beny Billy, by John BaucherI half expected an American announcer to follow them onstage proclaiming, ‘Let’s get ready to Rumbaaa!’

A minute later and the band’s charismatic frontman, Natty Bo, of London ska band Top Cats, entered stage left, dapper in a cream suit and porkpie hat.

As the off-beat kicked in, Bo encouraged the crowd forward, and from our vantage point by the bar we watched as a sea of bald spots began bobbing up and down in front of the stage.

Nostalgic for those heady days of Selector and the Maytals, Belfast’s army of ska veterans were savouring every note.

By the time ‘ Ay Caramba’ came around, the title track from Ska Cubano’s second album, we were all on our feet and the band were in full swing, revelling in repeated solos and winking at anyone and everyone who caught their eye.

Virtuosos every one, the stand out performances came from Cuban mambo singer Beny Billy and Japanese saxophonist Megumi Mesaku, whose slight frame flattered to deceive as she swept her way through five or six solos, leaving the audience stunned and astonished in equal measure. Natty Bo, by John Baucher

When Bo came around to introducing each member of the band toward the end of the set, he left Mesaku to last.

The crowd whooped and wailed for all they were worth, but she was coolness personified, retreating to her position in the brass section like something from a Tarantino movie, as if to say, ‘my work here is done.’

Even if they didn’t understand most of the Spanish lyrics, the call and response tactics employed by Bo made sure that the audience could participate vocally, and the individual solos brought the house down

An undeniable highlight of the festival, Ska Cubano should be at the top of your live lounge list for years to come. Go see them. every time. Siempre!