News

The Path to Public Service at SEAS

News

Should Supreme Court Justices Have Term Limits? That ‘Would Be Fine,’ Breyer Says at Harvard IOP Forum

News

Harvard Right to Life Hosts Anti-Abortion Event With Students For Life President

News

Harvard Researchers Debunk Popular Sleep Myths in New Study

News

Journalists Discuss Trump’s Effect on the GOP at Harvard IOP Forum

SKAVOOVIE!

By Kathryn R. Markham

The dimness of the room when you walk in isn't enough to convince you that it's corrupt--there's something too healthy, too alive.

The music hits you, so vibrant that it seems to come from inside of you. It's loud--it fills up the room and then some.

And the people are dancing. They seem a little young, but they're hip, undulating across the floor. Like the horns that solo, one dancer or another emerges from the group, isolated in the passing light of fame.

Finally, you look up at the stage, and you see them: Skavoovie and the Epitones. They're almost laughable, an image of your grandparents in their youth. Decked out in suits, hair greased back, they look more like swing kids than offspring of the grunge and hip-hop era.

Their sound is just as reminiscent of a bygone time: clear, smooth, sharp, reminding you of a sound you thought you had forgotten.

It isn't until you're back at school that you hear the same sweet synthesis at a nearby party, and you see a familiar face--Harvard's small share of the harmony that's Skavoovie. Fat.

John K. Natchez '99 is somewhat shy. Such modesty seems uncommon for a teenager, especially for one who has just released his first album.

Fat Footin', Skavoovie's first solo album, was available in New York as early as December 21; since then it has been distributed throughout the region and can be found in most local music stores. Natchez points out, though, that fans may have to ask for it specially, since it wasn't released on a large corporate label.

Noah Wildman, office manager for Moon Records NYC, the four-person, all-ska label that produced the record describes Skavoovie's music as "a very swingy kind of traditional ska."

Moon's decision to sign the band was based on numerous live appearances by Skavoovie. "This is a band that is deserving of an album and we have the resources, so we did it," he says. "It's a question of quality, really."

"You wouldn't think they were so young because they play with a maturity not heard in many bands," Wildman continues.

In person, however, Natchez is not the slick, hyper-dressed stage presence of Skavoovie; quiet and personable, he doesn't seem that different from any other teenager, slightly anxious at his first solo interview.

Natchez doesn't make full eye contact at first, but he twirls a flute in his hand and covers different finger patterns. He's more comfortable using music to convey his meaning.

To illustrate a point, he puts on a ska CD; his nervous energy channeled to a beat: "skaskaska, skavoovie." He draws out the syllable in a luxuriant Jamaican accent. It's one of many voices he slips into during the interview, punctuating his narration with other people's lives and sounds.

Skavoovie is a 10-man group Natchez joined while a sophomore in high school in Newton, Mass. Most of the band hails from around the region; all are Massachusetts residents.

"Six or seven people wanted to get a ska band together," he begins. "They had this other kid...playing alto and it didn't really work out.... They got along, but musically it wasn't right, so I gave them my name and number."

With his knowledge of alto and baritone sax, and a flute thrown in good measure, Natchez was a good match.

He started practicing with the band, and three years since, "we've changed a lot. Jesus, I see videos of when we first played...we've grown a lot."

For Natchez in particular, the growth has been emotional as well as professional. He has to grope for words when he describes his music. It's always difficult to explain the dynamics of a personal evolution.

"Music was always something I loved doing, it was always really fun? But when you get a chance to play professionally, when you get to see...it's a lot of stress performing, but it can be a rush too," he says.

"Leading sort of a musical lifestyle made me, and I'm sure a few other kids, really serious about pursuing music. Also just playing together for three years, we're tight, we're tighter than we used to be."

"Another thing is that the learning curve for younger musicians is a lot steeper...Ben, our tenor sax player, who just started playing six months before I met him, is so much better now."

"He's really remarkable," Natchez says solemnly. "I can't imagine teaching myself to play saxophone, especially at a relatively advanced age. He was a junior in high school when he started."

Natchez himself began at the tender age of nine, taking advantage of the free musical lessons the school district offered to his fourth-grade class. But he didn't get serious about it for another four years, when a new teacher revealed a side of music Natchez hadn't seen before.

"My previous teachers had been classically trained. Improvisation was really, really fun, and none of my teachers were ever willing to introduce me to that. I went to this teacher and at the first lesson he was like 'Okay, play over this' and just popped in a tape of a rhythm section playing a blues progression. It was so much fun. Introducing that element of music--fun--was new. Before that my teachers had been like 'okay, play your scales,' which you have to do and it's good that they told me to do that," he says.

"This teacher did tell me to do that, but at the same time, he'd be like 'you work on that, and then you have fun with it.' That really got me into it."

And Natchez went with it.

"I started playing a lot more...it became such a release. Whereas before, music was sort of something I did in a very abstract way--I had a saxophone--now it started playing a day to day role in my life."

Skavoovie's serendipitous arrival was the perfect channel. The younger ska audiences, unlike analytic jazz afficiandos, were receptive to the band's energy. And the fact that ska is still a burgeoning genre made the band's success possible.

"In Boston, there's a scene, you know, a very private scene," he says. "I think there were like us and maybe five other bands, and everyone was really friendly."

Jeremy, a trumpet player of a more established band, the Allstonians, recognized that Skavoovie was ripe. He did, however, play a nominal role in the band's development.

"A number of names were being thrown around by the band, and Jeremy, before our first show with the Allstonians, said 'I'm not letting you guys go on unless you call yourselves 'Skavoovie and the Epitones.' I love that name,'" he explains.

"It's kind of an unwieldy name, a lot of people are like" and here Natchez slips into a gruff voice, "'Skawhoozy and the Whatones?' We've had so many misspellings of that, we've had so many places have listed it as two separate bands."

"Skavoovie is the word that ska comes from, all right? Back in the late fifties and early sixties in Jamaica, there was a bassist called Cluet Johnson.... His greeting to people was hey mon, peace, love skavoovie. Instead of saying hey daddy-o, or what's up mon, he'd say that."

When he turns on the music to illustrate a point, he lights up. Leaning forward intently, he mimics a guitar.

"One of the things that defines ska is the offbeat. When [Johnson] was working with musicians and trying to get that sound, he's like 'No, no, no, I want you to play ska, ska, ska, ska, like skavoovie, ska, ska. That's where the word ska comes from, the sound that the guitars make on the offbeat.'"

His voice becomes a percussion instrument and he taps his foot.

"That's the offbeat, this is one and one and, like it's the 'and' of the beat. Ska is defined by the rhythm section."

Though the band plays ska, the style is only a small part of Natchez's eclectic tastes. At Harvard, he plays a lot of jazz, sometimes joining Flubber, a first-year Harvard band. But his heart is with Skavoovie.

In the first year after he joined the band, he met an alto sax player whose experience Natchez uses to illuminate the distinction he sees between jazz and ska.

"He was playing jazz gigs around Boston and he said he just got so sick of playing at some club, looking out into the audience and seeing half-drunk people, kind of swaggering in their chairs, eyes closed. That's one kind of vibe you get, that's cool, if people are really listening and digging your stuff, but now he gets to look out into the audience and see everybody dancing and grooving and totally having a good time and swinging their butts off."

"It is really a music that you gotta get up and dance to, a totally live music. Even with us, getting our CD out, that's fun or whatever, but it's still much more rewarding to play a really, really good show, cause that's where it's at," he finishes, satisfied.

Although Skavoovie travels to cities like New York and New Haven and has appeared in ska compilations, "I could never do this band professionally," Natchez says. "It's just ten guys in a band--there's just no way to make a living off that."

"Right now we're all kids, we started doing this in high school, you know, and we just have a really good time with it."

The summer's tours took them in an even wider orbit, west in their van. "We were staying in people's houses and $30 a night motels, cramming six people into a room. But it was fun."

"It's not like we're emissaries of ska. We're one of the newer bands,...but it's not like we're going out to these towns and the people at the shows are like 'Whutz this thang culled skaah?'"

Though the band may not figure into his future, Natchez likes to believe that music will.

"I have to figure out if I'm good enough. One thing that I think a lot of people don't realize learning music is like learning a very complex language and the tough thing is you learn languages before you're five. But I didn't really start playing, like really start worrying about learning music until I was 13. That's a tough age to pick up a new language. For me, music's one of the hardest things...Even sort of more abstract, sort of learned stuff, like math, that's easier for me," he sighs as he tries to explain.

"I want to do something that reflects me, and that doesn't reflect someone else, that doesn't reflect, 'oh, look, he can play what that guy played forty years ago.' It's about finding something current. It's just like any sort of, it's...you know, it's about finding your own voice.

The source of that voice is still elusive, though.

"Part of it just comes from somewhere that you don't know. In a way, I feel like sometimes when I play, I'm too cerebral, I've gotta be more sort of spontaneous...It's just sometimes wonderful when you hear something and before your brain can even think what notes are you playing, it just comes out," he says.

And when it comes out like that, Natchez's music expands from a small and very private space to an exuberance which infects the dancers.

"There's definitely a vibe you can feel, like when you can smell sweat and when you can just see people dancing their butts off. And there is kind of an egotistical rush that comes when you're onstage and people are listening to YOU, and people are dancing to you," he says.

Harvard has brought a new dimension to Natchez's sound. He says that he has improved significantly, mostly as a result of jamming with fellow students, who he describes as "amazing. Exclamation point."

The struggle for improvement continues. "It's really painful sometimes, and it...keeps you on your toes...It's like you're straining for something you can't force, so you never know when it's going to happen. It can be really tough sometimes, when you're like"--and for the first time in the interview, the accent that Natchez adopts is forceful, but his own--"'Dammit, this is the same shit I've been playing for two years. Why can't I learn something new? Why can't I get better? I think I could. Can I?'"

"It creates all these questions. It helps define who you are," he concludes.

And who does Natchez see himself becoming? "Professional musician would be nice, but I don't know if I can do that yet. I'd love to play with Skavoovie for as long as it lasts, for the rest of my life, because it's so much fun.

"That's the offbeat, this is one and one and, like it's the 'and' of the beat. Ska is defined by the rhythm section."

Though the band plays ska, the style is only a small part of Natchez's eclectic tastes. At Harvard, he plays a lot of jazz, sometimes joining Flubber, a first-year Harvard band. But his heart is with Skavoovie.

In the first year after he joined the band, he met an alto sax player whose experience Natchez uses to illuminate the distinction he sees between jazz and ska.

"He was playing jazz gigs around Boston and he said he just got so sick of playing at some club, looking out into the audience and seeing half-drunk people, kind of swaggering in their chairs, eyes closed. That's one kind of vibe you get, that's cool, if people are really listening and digging your stuff, but now he gets to look out into the audience and see everybody dancing and grooving and totally having a good time and swinging their butts off."

"It is really a music that you gotta get up and dance to, a totally live music. Even with us, getting our CD out, that's fun or whatever, but it's still much more rewarding to play a really, really good show, cause that's where it's at," he finishes, satisfied.

Although Skavoovie travels to cities like New York and New Haven and has appeared in ska compilations, "I could never do this band professionally," Natchez says. "It's just ten guys in a band--there's just no way to make a living off that."

"Right now we're all kids, we started doing this in high school, you know, and we just have a really good time with it."

The summer's tours took them in an even wider orbit, west in their van. "We were staying in people's houses and $30 a night motels, cramming six people into a room. But it was fun."

"It's not like we're emissaries of ska. We're one of the newer bands,...but it's not like we're going out to these towns and the people at the shows are like 'Whutz this thang culled skaah?'"

Though the band may not figure into his future, Natchez likes to believe that music will.

"I have to figure out if I'm good enough. One thing that I think a lot of people don't realize learning music is like learning a very complex language and the tough thing is you learn languages before you're five. But I didn't really start playing, like really start worrying about learning music until I was 13. That's a tough age to pick up a new language. For me, music's one of the hardest things...Even sort of more abstract, sort of learned stuff, like math, that's easier for me," he sighs as he tries to explain.

"I want to do something that reflects me, and that doesn't reflect someone else, that doesn't reflect, 'oh, look, he can play what that guy played forty years ago.' It's about finding something current. It's just like any sort of, it's...you know, it's about finding your own voice.

The source of that voice is still elusive, though.

"Part of it just comes from somewhere that you don't know. In a way, I feel like sometimes when I play, I'm too cerebral, I've gotta be more sort of spontaneous...It's just sometimes wonderful when you hear something and before your brain can even think what notes are you playing, it just comes out," he says.

And when it comes out like that, Natchez's music expands from a small and very private space to an exuberance which infects the dancers.

"There's definitely a vibe you can feel, like when you can smell sweat and when you can just see people dancing their butts off. And there is kind of an egotistical rush that comes when you're onstage and people are listening to YOU, and people are dancing to you," he says.

Harvard has brought a new dimension to Natchez's sound. He says that he has improved significantly, mostly as a result of jamming with fellow students, who he describes as "amazing. Exclamation point."

The struggle for improvement continues. "It's really painful sometimes, and it...keeps you on your toes...It's like you're straining for something you can't force, so you never know when it's going to happen. It can be really tough sometimes, when you're like"--and for the first time in the interview, the accent that Natchez adopts is forceful, but his own--"'Dammit, this is the same shit I've been playing for two years. Why can't I learn something new? Why can't I get better? I think I could. Can I?'"

"It creates all these questions. It helps define who you are," he concludes.

And who does Natchez see himself becoming? "Professional musician would be nice, but I don't know if I can do that yet. I'd love to play with Skavoovie for as long as it lasts, for the rest of my life, because it's so much fun.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags