Like disco, Northern Soul and the Chunky Kit-Kat, ska is one of Mother Nature’s few absolutely unimprovable phenomena. And those who get the bug for syncopated, horns ‘n’ Hammond proto-reggae at an impressionable age tend to be drawn back to it. Hence this album of classic-era ska covers from Madness saxophonist and songwriter Lee Thompson, aided by Nutty Boys bassist Mark “Bedders” Bedford and a suite of collaborators including Madness associates Terry Edwards and Seamus Beaghen. They play the raucous dancehall tunes that changed their lives with sufficient verve and spirit to make you understand that, if you’d heard them in the right place and time, they’d probably have changed yours too.
The album is named after the Jamaican nun who encouraged future conquering lions of ska Don Drummond, Rico Rodriguez and John “Dizzy” Moore — founder of The Skatalites — at the Alpha Boys School in Kingston. But it’s no arid tribute. Though projects such as these risk losing something indefinable to the vain precision of modern recording, Thompson enlisted modern ska guru Mike “Prince Fatty” Pelanconi to produce and the result is full of original Studio One grit, grind and gusto. It’s just a little easier to hear what’s going on here.
From the opening version of the Baba Brooks Band’s “Gun Fever” (party-time ska in its rude essence, all gunshots and spry electric organ), via a sinuous take on Desmond Dekker’s “Fu Manchu,” through deliciously woozy vibe-ups of “Napoleon Solo” and the “Mission Impossible” theme (’60s Jamaica was always big on spies) this is impossibly infectious music, played for the joy of it. Guest singer Bitty McLean aside, the vocals are best characterized as charmingly amateur but this stuff was always life-affirming first and professional a distant second. This is why ska never dates.
Perhaps a few novice ravers searching for Skrillex will discover TLTSO’s “Bangarang” by mistake — Thompson and co.’s version of the oldie by Stranger Cole and Lester Sterling has all the upsy-downsy euphoria of Toots and the Maytals’ “Monkey Man,” plus the new clarity imbued by Fatty’s mix. You can imagine a whole new generation falling in love with it.