You could be forgiven for thinking that ska is all but dead in this country.
The fanfare that greeted The Specials coming together suggested that since the ’80s the opportunity to dust off the skanking shoes and the pork-pie hat have been extremely limited. Yet scratch the surface and find the right clubs and pubs and ska is alive and well, still recruiting people with its sunny disposition.
Skylarkin Soundsystems (run by the ridiculously enthusiastic rum wielding Aidan Larkin) has flourished over the last five years making a name for itself, first with regular club nights with the legendary DJ Derek then later with stunning shows by the likes of The Skatalites and Alton Ellis.
However both Ska Cubano and Skylarkin Soundsystems made their initial live forays five years ago at this venue. Ska Cubano made their debut at the behest of Skylarkin Soundsystems, and promptly cemented themselves as a truly outstanding live entity. Ever since, there has been a special relationship between the audiences here and the band, and it’s fair to say that whenever they visit Oxford they raise their game.
Tonight is absolutely no exception, the 11-strong band taking to the stage with the kind of welcome that is usually reserved for royalty or perhaps a deity. From here, they dive headlong into a set filled with gems.
Band leader Natty Bo leads the charge. Resplendent in his Cuban suit and straw hat, he’s a tireless ball of energy. He’s a blur as he tears around the stage, dancing continuously, leading the audience in call and response and firing them up into a receptive heaving mass of dancing and flailing arms.
Musically the band is impossibly tight. Whether they’re locked into a rocksteady groove, lurching through complex rhythm changes or jamming on Latin flavours they are always in the pocket, every musician on the stage a master of their instrument. From the whirling trumpet of Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton to the solid bass groove laid down by Rey Crespo or the flamboyant guitar of Jesus Cutino, Ska Cubano are awash with talent.
It’s the band’s way with an audience that truly makes them great however, continuously forcing them to dance with an array of phenomenally catchy songs which include their reworkings of Tequila and Istanbul (Not Constantinople). They encourage hips to move with the Latin sauce of Pachito E Che (itself a reworking of The Skatalites’ Latin Goes Ska), and inspire an ever increasing party atmosphere.
Things reach fever pitch with Aye Carumba, a call and response tune that neither the band nor the audience appear to want to end. Solos are taken, choruses are belted out, and the party continues as band and audience inspire each other to new heights.
When they finally wrap things up and leave the stage, the sense of disappointment in the room is far outweighed by the positive atmosphere they have created. Ska Cubano’s reputation as a phenomenal live band can only grow and grow. For now, make a note – ska isn’t dead, it’s alive and kicking like a slug of 151 rum.