In the early 1960s, when Jamaica was liberated from British rule, the island’s musicians were tasting musical freedom, experimenting with and synthesizing a number of diverse influences from their native Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa to create a new style of music called ska. Jamaica quickly became an incubator of talent, generating standout musicians such as the legendary drummer Lloyd Knibb, of the pioneering ska band the Skatalites. Knibb codified the archetypal ska rhythmic pattern, playing rimclick in unison with the kick on beats 2 and 4 of each measure and creating the signature hi-hat swing. He was a font of inspiration for scads of influential Jamaican musicians, who would co-opt, modify, slow down, speed up, remix, and sample his beats.
Granted, Jamaica has produced other great drummers. Winston Grennan is often credited with creating the slower, heavier one-drop rhythm, which was popularized by Bob Marley’s longtime drummer/percussionist Carlton Barrett, and Arkland “Drumbago” Parks projected a sense of playfulness with his use of Latin-esque percussion (as heard in the music of the Jamaican pop star and producer Cecil Campbell, aka Prince Buster). But Knibb’s more muscular style, a fusion of Latin, African, and jazz concepts, contains a rare sense of adventure that has not been witnessed since. Simply put, aside from performing with a longtime friend, Skatalites bassist Lloyd Brevett (who died this past May), Knibb wasn’t in lockstep with anything or anyone. Arguably, no single musician, and certainly no other drummer, has done more to establish and propagate the rhythmic vocabulary of ska and to lay blueprints for its popular musical offspring, reggae.
Knibb, who was born in March 1931, began playing on pots and pans, with a wooden box for a bass drum, in his onetime home in Trench Town, the storied southwestern region of Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. Later, at a Rastafarian meeting, he was introduced to the traditional African hand drum called the repeater. As a teen Knibb observed Donald Jarrett, the drummer for Cecil “Sonny” Bradshaw (dubbed the Godfather of Jamaican Jazz), to learn swing, mambo, and other Latin styles.
“Lloyd’s mother was Cuban,” says Skatalites manager Ken Stewart, who first toured with the band as a keyboardist in the late ’80s. “Lloyd talked about a farm where his mother worked and they held calypso dances.”
Unlike many of his Skatalites bandmates, Knibb was not educated at the Alpha Boys School, a noted trade/music institution for the wayward. And Knibb distanced himself from the Rastafarian movement that so many musicians in Jamaica, including the Skatalites’ troubled trombonist Don Drummond, had firmly embraced, a fact that may have offered him cultural objectivity.
In sharp contrast to the structured format of the Alpha school, percussionist Oswald “Count Ossie” Williams hosted jams with his Rastafarian Nyabinghi drum troupe in the hills near Kingston Harbor. It was most likely here, in the early ’50s, that Knibb, who’d then been playing with tenor saxophonist Val Bennett, experienced the full complexity of African polyrhythms.
“Knibb’s unique style was a mixture of the Burru and Nyabinghi drumming brought to Jamaica by the slaves of Africa,” confirms Jamaican-born bassist Phil Chen (the Doors, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck). Knibb transferred West African rhythms to the drumkit on many tracks; check out the Skatalites’ “Don De Lion,” as well as Bob Marley and the Wailers’ early-’60s recordings such as “Simmer Down,” where Knibb plays an Afro-Latin pattern on what sounds like the bell of partially opened hi-hats, and “One Love,” which throbs with Knibb’s busy, heartbeat-like 8th-note kick patterns.
Knibb’s style incorporated many rhythmic elements. His jazz and Latin slant is evident on Skatalites recordings such as “Tribute to Nehru,” “Latin Goes Ska,” and the turbocharged “Ska-Ra-Van” (based on the famous Duke Ellington version of “Caravan”). According to Carlos Malcolm, a noted musical authority and the founder of the band Afro-Jamaican Rhythms, near the end of a performance at the Jolly Roger Club in Montego Bay, a venue that Knibb played regularly with the Eric Deans Orchestra in the ’50s, a rumba dancer would perform “exotic gyrations” and Knibb would match these physical movements with beats on his kit.
“What makes Lloyd Knibb one of the greatest drummers from Jamaica is that he combined [African-based rhythms] with the sound of Glenn Miller, Cuban cha-cha-cha, bolero, rumba, and other Latin feels,” Chen says.
In addition, Knibb duplicated the timbre of timbales by throwing off the snares of his snare drum and executing resounding rimshots, as heard on a variety of Skatalites songs, including “Guns of Navarone” and the comical “Lon Chaney.”
“The rimshot is a good example of [Knibb’s] unique style,” the drummer’s son Dion says. “When he played, you knew it was him.”
“[Knibb] would push the stick into the drumhead and pick it up again,” Ken Stewart says. “I never could figure out how he did it.”
By the early ’60s, Knibb had become the house drummer for Kingston’s Studio One, run by the iconic Jamaican producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. Under Dodd’s tutelage, Knibb solidified the classic ska feel on recordings by Bob Marley, Prince Buster, John Holt, “Toots” Hibbert, and, of course, the Skatalites.
“I was in the studio, playing the same old boom-cha, boom-cha thing, when Coxsone Dodd said to me, ‘I want to change the beat,’” Knibb recalled in a 2005 MD interview. “I remembered playing a lot of Latin and different kinds of tunes, so I came up with the second and fourth beat, and that was it.”
A mastery of the ska feel also offered Knibb the latitude to explore subtle shifts in the placement of his rimclick swats, such as on the Afro-Latin-tinged Skatalites song “Chinatown.” “It was like he took it as a challenge to see how many measures he could go without playing a simple quarter note on a downbeat,” explains bassist/ guitarist Art Cohen, who played with Lloyd numerous times as a member of Dion Knibb & the Agitators.
Knibb, who passed on in May 2011 at age eighty, after years of extensive road and studio work with a reconstituted Skatalites, was clearly one of a kind. He lived for the gig and toured with the band even with an amputated big toe. It’s difficult to sum up his raison d’être, but perhaps the term individual expression will suffice. “If someone asked Lloyd his secret, he would show the guy the calluses on his hand,” Stewart says.
Ska and Knibb are intricately intertwined. The forces and circumstances that coalesced to create the genre could never be reproduced, yet the music survives, in large part thanks to Knibb’s legacy.
“The members of the Skatalites were known as the best musicians in Jamaica,” Gil Sharone says. “They were an all-star group that played on their own but also backed every legendary artist in Jamaica at the time. One of Lloyd’s trademarks was the way he played a cross-stick. I’ve never seen anyone else use his technique or get the sound he did. It was an honor to have learned that technique from him. Lloyd was the godfather of the Jamaican drumming styles, and his influence will live on forever.”