The oyster cracker is the Skatalites.
Reared on American big bands led by Count Basie and Glen Miller, the Skatalites were the product of African-American jazz. And ska was the product of the Skatalites. By mixing jazz with cha-cha and Rastafarian burro rhythms in the early 1960s, drummer Lloyd Knibb invented a beat that perfectly expressed the optimism he felt for a newly independent Jamaica. The beat was giddy and infectious, though decidedly slower and more intricate than the MTV-friendly bouncy ska. The Skatalites' latest album, Ball of Fire, is a collection of their most popular songs recently reworked, and, while only four members remain from the original lineup -- Knibb, saxmen Roland Alphonso and Lester Sterling, and bass player Lloyd Brevett -- the record is a masterpiece of Jamaican jazz. While on tour, Doreen Shaffer, the band's original singer, will join the eight-piece and, with any luck, Jamaican guitar legend Ernest Ranglin, who appears throughout the new album, will also be in tow. The Skatalites perform at Slim's on Wednesday, March 4, with Let's Go Bowling and Critical Mass opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16; call 522-0333.
As part of the "Bridging the Balkans" music series, Hungarian bagpipe (duda) and flute (furulya) master Ferenc Tobak performs with a 13-piece music-and-dance ensemble, which includes no less than two hurdy-gurdy players. Tobak has recorded with every major band to come out of Hungary (read: world music queen Marta Sebestyen). He performs at the Slavonic Cultural Center on Friday, March 6, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $5; call 584-8859.
A non sequitur for folks of Slavic-Jewish descent: San Francisco Hillel presents "Russian-American Purim Disco," an event that combines the deliverance of the Jewish people from massacre at the hands of Haman with disco music, lights, and fog. Something for the kids at the S.F. Jewish Community Center on Saturday, March 7, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $4-6; call 333-4922.
There are not many solo performers who speak to a larger variety of folks than Johnny Cash. At the Fillmore, on his last roll through town, Cash's outsider ballads brought out young and old, redneck and punk. Now, with the news of Cash's escalating struggle against Parkinson's disease, that tour -- likely his last -- resonates all the more strongly with his fans. Listen up folks: The time to appreciate Cash is now, while he's still alive.
To that end, former Wankin Teens' guitarist Wankin' Wayne has organized "The Man in Black Show: Punks and Pickers Pay Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash." The Man in Black Show Band -- modeled after Cash's Tennessee Three -- will include Wayne on guitar, Papa Ed on upright bass, More Scotty Moore on acoustic flattop box, and Big Stick Mick on snare drum; singing duties will be shared by John Dennery of the Hi-Fives, Cinder Block of Tilt, Smelley Kelley of Red Meat, Jessie Luscious of the Criminals, Johnny Dilks of the Visitacion Valley Boys, Nick 13 of Tiger Army, Devil Doll of the Tantrums, Johnny Mutilator of the Mutilators, Angelique X of Venus Bleeding, the King Teen of the Smokejumpers, and Rockin' Lloyd Trip of Three Tons of Fun. As if that wasn't enough, the Hi-Fives, Johnny Dilks & the Visitacion Valley Boys, and the Mutilators will be playing support sets at 924 Gilman in Berkeley on Saturday, March 7, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5; call (510) 525-9926.
On Tunnel Songs, Marc Olsen has all but deserted the superstar, psychedelic, slide-guitar solos that he used to play in Sky Cries Mary and the Seattle-based Sage. Like a man who nearly allowed his leg to atrophy, Olsen, without the crutch, learns to walk again. Tunnel Songs is sparse and pensive with only a few brief but stirring touches of violin, organ, bass, and pedal steel. Like the Palace Brothers, Olsen's lyrics are not as significant as the emotion he invokes. He is an artisan of loneliness, a man deserted by lovers, friends, fate, and fortune, haunted by memories of emotional impotency and his own doubt. Rather than scream away the phantoms, Olsen burrows into a warm, dark place where he can quietly observe their silhouettes. It is a comforting place to be. Olsen performs at the Make-Out Room on Monday, March 9, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $5; call 647-2888.
-- Silke Tudor