The History Of Ska!
Most Jamaicans did not have much money and did not travel much, so there had been little musical influence coming in from other cultures across the water. That soon changed. The cities in the US, across the water from Jamaica, began to broadcast music. The closest ones like Miami and New Orleans were near enough that on clear days the Jamaicans could pick up the signal across the water. Suddenly sounds of Jazz were seeping into Jamaican homes. Rhythm and Blues, Boogie Woogie, Swing and other popular types of music were catching the ear of the Jamaican listeners. By the late 1950s, Jazz, R & B, and a style of Calypso called Mento had been mixed together to create Shuffle. Soon Jamaicans were getting attention as studios began to look for talent among them.
At the same time, a new style of music was developing on the airwaves. Rock and Roll had taken over the air and much of the earlier Rhythm and Blues was being forgotten by the radio stations. Jamaicans, in general, did not like the new sound. Rock and Roll identified with a primarily white audience, and it was not as good to dance to. This lead to the development of sound systems. These were mobile music systems, with which disc jockeys would travel and play the music which Jamaicans could no longer hear on the radio.
Soon, some of the sound system operators began to record the Jamaican talent. Clement Dodd was one of those operators. First his recordings were of Rhythm & Blues and Jazz styles. But those slowly developed into a new fusion of music styles combining the influences of R & B, Jazz, Boogie Woogie and Mento, the style which would be its West Indian Calypso influence. By about 1960 or 61 the Ska style had developed getting its name from a phrase often used by one of Dodds supporters.
In 1962, a Jamaican tenor sax player named Tommy McCook returned to live in Jamaica. He began to influence this brand new fusion of styles. Being a Jazz player and a Jamaican, Ska appealed to him. By 1963 McCook was recording with all of the top Jamaican musicians. He soon started a band with the best of these and in June of 1964 they formed the Skatalites.
The Skatalites were the definition of Ska at the time. At least one member of the band can be found playing on just about every Ska recording that came out of Jamaica, including those of Bob Marley and Jackie Opel.
After only a year, the Skatalites broke up. Soon after, their lead trombonist and debatably their best musician, Don Drummond, died.
In 1966, Ska was slowly beginning to be replaced. During the summer of that year, it had been very warm, and many Jamaicans found it difficult to dance to the faster Ska music. This combined with the loss of the Skatalites was enough to force the transition from Ska to a newer style, Rocksteady. With Rocksteady, there was less emphasis on vocal parts. The horns were rarely used and the tempo was much slower. The focus of Rocksteady was the bass. Its slow, smooth movements developed Rocksteady away from the quick, lively pace of Ska.
At the same time, a new figure was becoming popular: the rude boy. Rude boys, or rudies, had been around during the Ska era, but they were even more prominent in the late 1960s. A rude boy was a gangster. They were angry, unemployed youths who walked around in gangster-style suits. They would steal and vandalise and be menaces to society, while remaining as cool and collected as possible, strolling down the street with style.
With this political and social unrest in Jamaica, and the increasing popularity in the rude boy attitude, the music began to progress accordingly. Soon, Reggae developed out of Rocksteady, becoming slower with even more emphasis on the bass.
Reggae was also very political. It began to appeal to two types of people, the Jamaican Rastafarians and the British working class. Reggae is what spread Jamaican music everywhere.
The Rastafarians, a religious group known for wearing dreadlocks in their hear and smoking marijuana, began to play Reggae as a way of preaching their beliefs and speaking out. The appeal of reggae to the British working class was phenomenal. These listeners were the skinheads.
It is this spreading of Jamaican music that lead to the second wave of Ska music, the Two Tone era.
In 1979, ska became very popular in England. Many bands began to play the new sound, cashing in on Skas sudden surge in popularity. But the Two Tone era was more than just a Ska revival. It was an image, created and designed by a member of The Specials, Jerry Dammers. Two Tone brought back the image of the rude boy. Though the actual fashion worn by these new British rudies was more like that of the Mods of the late 50s and early 60s, they were still stylish criminals with the same image as the original Jamaican rudies. The bands of the second wave were a mix of British and Jamaican people. Using the black and white suits and checked image as a symbol for racial equality, Two Tone bands brought a Ska style with a more nasal British accent and a more punk rock influenced sound.
By the mid 1980s, Jamaican music, Ska and Reggae, had changed in several ways. First of all, many of the Reggae tracks that were coming out now were about violence and political unrest in England, not Jamaica. This reflected the popularity of Reggae and Ska in England. Secondly, there were many popular releases by female artists, far more than had been released before. The Two Tone band the Selecter was unique because of its female singer. In the early days of Ska and Reggae, female singers or performers were few and far between. Reggae was also producing many female stars by this time.
Another big change to Ska that developed during the Two Tone era was the incorporation of Punk Rock. Punk had set the stage for Two Tone. Many youths were looking for that same message without the ultra extreme attitude that came with it. A music for the working class that still incorporated all the anti racist and anti capitalist messages, without the extreme look. Ska had a more casual approach, addressing the topic without the excessive violence.
But Two Tone was also adopting the Punk sound, fusing it with Ska and Reggae. Something The Clash had begun, but much more developed this time. Punk worked perfectly with Ska. First their was the left wing message. Jamaicans had long ago learned how to Get up, stand up for their rights. Also, Punks offbeat drum rhythm easily changed into Skas slower but similar 2 and 4 pattern, and Punk and Ska created an interesting contrast, moving from thrashing guitar chords and an excelerated beat, to the slow cool offbeat pattern. Even a Punk bass line could be slowed down and used for Ska during the same song. And though often there would be no transition between the speed of the drum beats of the two styles, the Ska drum beat is literally half that of the Punk one. This transition created a cool, contrasting echo effect, each part building off the previous one. The Ska off the Punk and the Punk building off the Ska.
After the fall of Two Tone, many bands continued to play Ska music but it was much more underground, partly because there were few major record deals for them, and partly because the punk image had affected many of the bands, and they were no longer interested in the fame and fortune that many of the Two Tone bands had enjoyed.
The Ska sound spread across the globe as small bands toured and elite groups of rudies spread the word about the last two eras of Ska. Suddenly, the style was mixing with other influences, creating blends of Ska with everything from Polka, to Klezmer, to Rap, Heavy Metal and Hardcore.
Two diverse music scenes developed in the US, one in New York and one in Boston. Soon bands like the Toasters and Bim Skala Bim were making progress in the field and Ska was becoming heard.
But it was not the bands who played pure Jamaican Ska that got the most attention. Ska began to be heard on popular rock and alternative stations labelled as other things. It was the Ska that was mixed with Rock and Punk that was getting airplay, and people were loving it. The band No Doubt is a perfect example because their Ska influences are very small, but they did bring a bit of the sound in while releasing their alternative singles.
Soon the media began to take advantage of the rising popularity, and began to discuss it on the air and on television. Punk and Hardcore influenced bands like Sublime and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones helped Ska to reach new ears who would normally never have heard anything remotely similar on the radio. And with the recent rise in the popularity of Swing music, Ska seems even more likely to branch out and shake the nation.
So, what is Ska? Many argue that Ska is only the roots sound mastered by the Skatalites and their followers. Others have only heard the small amount that is actually played on popular radio stations and have no idea what diversity can be found on the thousands of old and underground records that await. But Ska began as music for dancing, and that is what it will always be. Including the rhythmic offbeats, even if it is fused with every imaginable style of music, Ska still remains dance music, and it will stay that way long after even the most controversial of eras have come and gone.Sources
Hebdige, Dick. Cut n Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. London: Methuen,
Manuel, Peter. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1995.
Marcus, Greil. Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977 92. New York:
Szatmary, David. A Time to Rock: A Social History of Rock n Roll. New York: Schirmer
White, Timothy. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley. New York: Henry Holt, 1983.
The Attempted Ska Pagehttp://www.icct.net/~tanner/ska.html
The History of SkaHTTP://www.wpi.edu/~jaymo/ska/index.html http://www.skamusic.com/ska_history.htm
The Ultimate Band List
When I wrote all of this I hopefully gave credit where credit is due. I hope you will do the same. Gimme a shout if you wanna use any of this stuff. Thanks. -the apostle