The Trojans: Ska-ing their way into history

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Singer, bandleader, DJ, impresario and fashionable bloke about town Gaz Mayall says he’s at the “hub of a musical and cultural wheel”—and he means it.

When Metropolis catches him by phone on a sunny late summer day at a London park, several entertainment business friends pass by, and for good measure are put on the phone to say “hallo.” Gaz and his friends are still basking in the afterglow of the Notting Hill Carnival, London’s annual freewheeling celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture.

Mayall, the 55-year-old son of blues legend John Mayall, has run a stage at the festival for years. “For the last two years Mick Jones has come up and sung ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go,’” he drops casually. “I’m the only guy who still has live bands. To get funding we go to the arts council, because it costs a fortune to put it on. We build a huge stage, a DJ tower and take over a whole block.”

Needless to say, Mayall’s own ska outfit The Trojans play his Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues stage, an outdoor version of the Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues night he stages every Thursday night in London. At 33 years and counting, the event is London’s longest running one-nighter.

While Gaz’s musical education came at the hands of his father, his musical career emerged from a different angle. “I had a clothes stall in the ‘70s in Kensington Market,” he explains, “and at that time my shop was quite big. I would bring a load of records, we’d be listening to ska, old rock, R&B… We had a meeting of kids’ tribes—punks, teddies, skinheads—and one day in ’79 all of a sudden all you could hear was ska up and down the country. Everybody started buying second hand suits and looking really sharp and listening to ska, and I was right in the center of it in my shop. All the bands—Madness, The Specials—would come to hang out.”

Mayall launched his club night in 1980, and then followed it up with his own band in 1986. “Ska was about being an international music form—not just American music, but about our homegrown mish-mash, which we called ska,” he says of his motive for creating The Trojans.

“When I started my own band I wanted to push the border a bit further,” he continues. “So I introduced Celtic music to the mix, with bagpipes, whistles and fiddles, and showed how you can have archaic Celtic music—even Japanese or Russian music—and mix that into Afro-Caribbean beats. I try to incorporate all this music that I love with a passion, because at the end of the day all music is a fusion of something that came before it. It’s all about bringing together people from different tribes, and I’ve always wanted to be right at the hub of that musical wheel.”

With Gaz’s various endeavors keeping him busy (and hard to reach), and the band’s lineup shifting due to events both happy (children) and sad (suicide), The Trojans are an occasional affair. It’s been five years since they last toured Japan and 15 since their last album.

Among the 18 musicians on Smash It! (available on disc from Japan’s Ska in World Records), are everyone from 20-year-old featured singer Zoe Devlin to vintage Jamaican trumpeter Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton to Japanese sax player Megumi. Mayall jokes that the band is something of a Buena Vista Social Club of UK ska.

“I went back to the basics with this one,” he says of the disc. “There’s rocksteady, calypso, mento, and instruments like the bagpipes that you’d only hear with the Trojans. We take it back to the basic Trojans story, which is about a load of people coming together who represent the multiracial backbone of London. We started at a pivotal turning point in London society where that really began, around ’79-’80.”

The connection between Gaz and Japan isn’t limited to Megumi and the vinyl release of Smash It! The Trojans have long considered Japan a second home. “The first time I’d ever been to Japan, I’d just had three wisdom teeth removed and my first live-in girlfriend had left me,” Gaz recalls. “The phone rang, and it was Koichi Hanafusa of Japanese promoter Smash, and he said, ‘Do you want to come to Japan?’”

Thus was launched a bond between Mayall and Smash that has deepened over time. Regulars at Smash’s Fuji Rock Festival may have noticed a tall, gangly man at the entrance to the Palace of Wonder stage—Gaz’s brother Jason.

“Jason was the tour manager for the Trojans in the ’80s and I introduced him to Masahiro Hidaka,” Gaz says of the head of Smash. “They got on and Jason ended up establishing Smash’s London office. I haven’t done them all but Jason has done every one.”

Metropolis, Sep 26, 2013

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