(And Why You Should Care)
I first heard the word Ska during a conversation with my eccentric uncle (we all have one of those) about his new past-time: he had joined a band and alternated casually between being the band’s bassist and trumpet player. Now, that certainly isn’t a thought we generally entertain outside of the smoky rooms of cinema jazz homages, and, certainly, we don’t entertain that idea alongside punky guitar riffs, atypical syncopations, and a simple 4/4 drum on the off-beat. Or, at least, my roommate didn’t get the same picture in her head when I suggested we start a Ska band drawing on her no-longer-in-use marching band technical expertise. Ska, like every other genre, has its die-hard, don’t-you-dare-desecrate-it fans among which I can’t honestly claim allegiance, but, regardless of whether or not you listen to it, Ska has some important lessons for all of us.
So, what is Ska? Well, that’s a more complicated question than you’d think. If you’re a lazy researcher and you rely on the sacrilegious Wikipedia or slightly less-so Encyclopedia Britannica, you could get two different numbers for how many “waves” there were of the style (four or three, respectively). For our sakes, we’ll just say three because I’ve never heard anyone swear by “fourth wave Ska” other than Wikipedia.
However, everyone agrees about the location of inception: Jamaica. Ska was born out of the New Orleans blues and jazz heard from urban radios in Jamaican homes. With added Carribbean spice and a piano to guitar substitution, Ska became a generally instrument dominated genre until its debut to the international public in NYC during the World’s Fair of ‘64. This new music style was what we now call the 1st Wave, featuring the music of Eric Monty Morris, Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires—all of whom we could argue about their permanence in the genre, especially with the almost immediate rise of rocksteady and reggae. The 1st Wave quickly left the international scene due to these more popular counter-parts.
It wasn’t until English musicians (and Jamaican immigrants to the UK) in the late 1970s adopted it in Two-Tone or 2nd Wave that Ska once again burst onto the scene with a slightly different sound. The artists of the 2nd Wave added punk (a genre that was developing at the time) influences (especially in the realm of lyrics, which turned more towards social commentary and political issues) and satirically imitated the dress of the higher classes. The bands of this time period had ethnically diverse members and stood for racial equality including (disputed) names like Madness,The Specials, and The Selector.
However, the 2nd wave was short-lived in the general public’s eye (maybe two to three years), and the genre fell out of favor again until it was picked up in America during the late 80s. By then it was mixing the sound from the second wave even more with punk and hardcore influences to create the sound I knew when I first learned the word “Ska”: the 3rd Wave with (also controversial) names like The Toasters, No Doubt (yes, that’s Gwen Stefani), and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Arguably, the 3rd wave of Ska music hasn’t quite ended, though it’s sunk from the frontlines of music it once held through the 90s, so much so that some might swear that we’re living in a period marked by the death of Ska all together. However, we keep seeing Ska stay true to its nature and evolve with the new millennia, peeking through in out-of-genre songs like those found in the earlier days of Vampire Weekend.
Now, if you were waiting for the point, why should we care? Ska is just another genre or, maybe, sub-genre that might make a resurgence (in the mainstream) or fade into musical abandon. Why should we care? Well, if you’re like me, you read through all the history of Ska and see an amazing picture of diffusion of culture, an interaction of people. It’s people coming together from different backgrounds and just having a jam session, finding a sound completely their own from everything they’ve come to know. Isn’t that what all music is? Isn’t that what college is about? We’re all coming together, meeting new people, communicating new ideas, and embracing new perspectives, and, hopefully, by the end of it, we’ll have created something like a jam session, something like a Ska band. Who knows? Maybe my roommate might take me up on the idea…
A Couple of Songs for Context:
- Eric Monty Morris – Sammy Dead-O
- Jimmy Cliff – King of Kings
- Prince Buster – Enjoy Yourself
- Byron Lee & the Dragonaires – Jamaican Ska
- Madness – Our House
- The Specials – A Message to You Rudy
- The Selector – On My Radio
- The Toasters – Weekend in LA
- No Doubt – Excuse Me, Mr.
- The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Someday I Suppose
- Vampire Weekend – A-Punk