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Lionel ‘Saxa’ Martin: The Beat of Ska’s Heart

Today, we celebrate the birth of a true ska music legend, Lionel “Saxa” Martin. Born in 1930 in Crofts Hill Clarendon, Jamaica, Saxa’s journey in music began early. His love for ska, rhythm & blues, soca, and reggae started with a homemade bamboo fife, evolving through various instruments until he found his ultimate passion: the saxophone. Arriving in England in 1962, Saxa’s talent shone in the pubs and clubs around Birmingham, leading to his discovery and eventual full-time membership with the band The Beat (also known as The English Beat in North America)​​.

Saxa’s influence on ska music is profound and enduring. His early experiences performing with Jamaican musicians like Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster grounded him in ska’s fundamentals, fostering a distinctive style that would later become his trademark. In the late 1970s, he became a pivotal figure in the British ska revival, joining The Beat and bringing his powerful and melodic saxophone solos to the forefront. His performances on tracks like “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Tears of a Clown,” and “Hands Off She’s Mine” didn’t just embellish the songs; they elevated the band’s music, fusing elements of traditional ska with new wave and punk influences​​.

Saxa’s ability to bridge traditional Jamaican ska with the burgeoning British punk scene significantly contributed to The Beat’s success and the popularity of the Two-Tone movement. His contributions were integral to the band’s unique sound and influential in the broader musical landscape of the time. Despite being significantly older than his bandmates, Saxa’s youthful energy and passion for music were infectious, profoundly impacting the band’s dynamism and the lively character of The Beat’s live performances​​.

Following the disbandment of The Beat in 1983, Saxa continued to perform with various iterations of the band, including The International Beat and The New English Beat, before retiring from touring in the 1990s. He remained a respected figure in the world of ska. Saxa passed away on May 3, 2017, but his legacy as one of ska’s most influential and charismatic performers lives on, continuing to resonate with saxophonists and music lovers worldwide​​.

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