The history of ska music is interesting as since its birth ska has continued to develop into many different styles. In forty years ska has enjoyed three waves of popularity around the world. This essay attempts to trace ska music's history, the roots, the birth, the styles and, hopefully will offer you some interesting facts.
EARLY JAMAICAN CULTURE
To fully understand the origins of ska and trace its unique musical elements we must understand some important parts of Jamaican history. The island of Jamaica was first visited by Europeans in 1494 by Columbus. The British won the right to colonize and began shipping slaves from the west coast of Africa to work on newly set up plantations. By 1807 there were over two million Africans in Jamaica working on English plantations in the most brutal systems of slavery in the world.
The slaves tried hard to hold on to their African philosophy and established their own system of beliefs and values in their slave communities. Some forms of African music, such as the Burru were allowed by the white masters who believed it would help the slaves to work faster. At times the slave musicians were also called upon to entertain the white masters. The type of entertainment provided by the slave musicians followed a carnival tradition and allowed the oppressed performers to dress and act like kings, queens, lords and ladies for the amusement of the white masters. In the 1960's this tradition was continued by performers who adopted royal titles such as 'Prince' Buster, 'Lord' Tanamo, 'Duke' Reid to name a few.
Often this carnival type of entertainment was combined with the Quadrille which was a dance set popular in Europe in the late 18th century and was taken to the slave colonies by plantation owners.The dance was transformed by the black population where it exhibited a more distinctive African bounce quality as well as an expressive tone of derision. Critical social commentary has been important aspect of ska lyrics since its earliest inceptions.
After the emancipation of slaves in 1834, Jamaica experienced a revival that gave birth to two religious sects that had an influence on the birth of ska. Pukkumina maintained African derived elements in its rituals and used body sounds such as clapping and stamping for rhythmic support. Over breathing was also used as both a two beat vocal percussion rhythm and to induce a trance like state in the performers. The characteristic 'hup, hup, hup...' and 'Ch-Ka-Ch-Ch' vocal percussion is still a feature in ska music. Examples can be heard in The Skatelites 'Guns of Navarone', Madness' version of 'One Step Beyond' and more recently Pete Porker in 'Chemical Imbalance'. The other religion was called Zion Revival and was popular in areas of Jamaica with a concentration of Europeans. Revival music is characterised by improvised vocal harmonies and changing patterns of rhythm in clapping and stamping and drumming that accompany the songs. European elements such as brass band music, brought by British troops; and sea shantys, brought in by British sailors also influenced the sound of revival choruses. There are literally hundreds of choruses used to accompany all occasions such as 'Let us Break Bread Together', a thanksgiving song and 'Dip Dem, Bedward' a baptismal chorus.
Mento is generally considered to be a fusion of African rhythm and European tunes and was most popular in the 1940's and 50's. It is an acoustic music that was often performed in streets. It is performed on portable instruments such as guitar, banjo, African thumb piano (kalimba) and bongos. Musically, mento is similar to the Caribbean Rhumba style. The basic rhythm follows the 3+2+2 pattern and there are strong accents on the last beat of each bar. 'Dis Long Time Gal', 'Water Come a Me Eye' and 'Banyan Tree' are example of traditional mento songs. Mento tunes are used over and over again with new lyrics commenting on topical situations and sometimes innuendo such as the Jolly Boys' 'Touch Me Tomato'.
THE JAZZ INFLUENCE
The brass band tradition originally brought to Jamaica by British Troops gradually became incorporated into some areas of Kingston. Most importantly was the music program at Alpha Boys Catholic School, in West Kingston. Alpha Boys was a catholic reform school where morals and strict order ruled, but more importantly it had a great brass band. Although mento was popular amongst the lower classes, Kingston's small middle class population had been familiar with American and English Jazz since the 1930's. The teachers at Alpha Boys included Jazz in their music education program. Many well known Jamaican musicians were educated at Alpha Boys including Tommy McCook, Don Drummond (The Skatelites) and Rico Rodriguez (The Specials).
After leaving school some Alpha Boys began performing in Jazz Big Bands that drew on the influence of American stars like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. But it was the smaller American Rhythm and Blues (R&B) bands that became the most important influence to Jamaican musicians. American R&B radio programs broadcast from Memphis, Maimi and New Orleans were able to be picked up on AM radios in Jamaica. These programs were refreshing and relevant to Jamaican audiences who had grown tired of BBC radio replays favoured by the National broadcasting company 'Radio Jamaica'.
SOUND SYSTEMS & THE JAMAICAN RECORDING INDUSTRY
Growing radio audiences led to the birth of the Jamaican recording industry. At the same time portable dance music operators running 'Sound Systems' competed for public popularity. Sound System operators were an enormous influence on Jamaican youth as they controlled what people listened to and the import of R&B recordings. The two most important were Duke Reid and Clement Dodd. Reid was known as 'the Trojan' after the Trojan flat bed truck he used to transport equipment. It is believed the Dodd's nickname Coxsone was taken from his favorite Yorkshire cricket player. Throughout the 1950's these two conducted a musical war. This war escalated to the point that rough nuts known as 'Dance Hall Crashers' were employed to attend the competitors sound system parties, trash the joint and fight with the club goers. These club goers were called 'Rude Boys' and they were the primary listeners and fashion setters in the dance hall scene. More about 'rude boys' later.
THE BIRTH OF SKA
Like mento before it, ska was born out of a combining musical elements. Both mento and jazz were combined to produce a new style that was initially called 'Shuffle' Popular shuffle hits were recorded by Neville Esson, Owen Grey and the Overtakers. The newly set up recording studios were always on the look out for the next new sound. With the popularity of American R&B artists like Fats Domino and Louis Jordan many Jamaican performers incorporated the 12 bar blues chord progressions and boogie bass lines with mento guitar rhythms. Increasing emphasis was placed on the offbeat rhythms of mento.
The offbeats became shorter and more detached. These distinct syncopated rhythms were sounded on guitar and piano. The new style of music became known as ska. The first person to record this 'ska' rhythm was Ernest Ranglin when performing with Cluet Johnson (Clue J.) and the Blues Busters
One day he was trying to get the guitars to play
something, and him say 'make the guitars go Ska!,
Ska!, Ska!' And that's the way the ska name was born.
(Bunny Lee in Johnson and Pines. 1982 .49)
Clue J was well known for greeting his friends with a call of 'Love Skavoovie'. Many believe the name of ska is a shortened form of this greeting.
Ska quickly became the most dominant form of music in Jamaica. Its success coincided with the independence and the departure of the English in 1962. There was a new attitude towards indigenous music. Ska was already enormously popular in Jamaica and music producers attempted to export it to the rest of the world, a move that was supported by the government. It was the national music of Jamaica and was demonstrated to the the world at the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York. The Jamaican delegates included Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Jimmy Cliff , Prince Buster and dancers Ronnie Nasralla and Jannette Phillips who taught the world the moves for the 'Backy Skank', the 'Rootsman Skank' and the 'Ska'.
Early ska dance movements and some lyrics were influenced by the religious revival era. Songs such as 'Wings of a Dove' performed by both The Blues Busters and The Wailers, 'Oil in My Lamp' by Eric Morris and 'King of Kings' by Jimmy Cliff are revival tunes with lyrics that are sped up. 'Israelites' by Desmond Dekker also features revival characteristics in the lyrics. Other ska lyrics were pop orientated and feature very little Jamaican patois. These songs were either nonsense lyrics such as Eric Morris' 'Humpty Dumpty' and 'Solomon Gundie' or romantic such as Delroy Wilsons' 'Dancing Mood', which was one of the first songs to bridge the gap between ska and it's slower successor Rocksteady (more later). In stark contrast are the political ska lyrics that reflected the social concerns of rude boys.
As mentioned earlier these youths were the primary listeners to ska in Jamaica. They were rebellious out of work and reacted against economic tensions. They emulated Hollywood gangster fashions by wearing black suits, thin ties and pork pie hats, the type of look that is still seen today in Taritinos movies 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction'. Rude Boys often lived outside of the law and were also sometimes called 'Scofflaws' (people who belittle the law). Ska lyrics at the time reflected the life and times of Rude Boys. Some examples include The Soul Brothers' 'Lawless Street', The Heptones' 'Gunmen Comin to Town', Desmond Dekkers' '007 Shanty Town', Dandy Livingstones' 'A Message to You Rudi' and Prince Busters' 'Judge Dread' who handed out 400 year sentences to Rude Boys.
Clement Dodd backed a young group who envisioned themselves as rudies - The Wailers Bob Marley, Bunny Livingstone (Wailer) and Peter Macintosh (later shortened toTosh). It was a picture of Peter Tosh from an early Wailing Wailers album that inspired the Jerry Dammers Two Tone artwork, more later.
The way rude boys danced to the music also influenced the ska sound. They rhythmically pumped their arms back and forward and adopted a more menacing posture than the traditional style demonstrated by Ronnie and Jannette. As a result the music became more menacing. Bass lines became more syncopated rejecting the easy going walking boogie style. More evidence of the continual evolution of this musical style.
ROCKSTEADY TO REGGAE
By 1966 in Jamaica many audiences had grown tired of the insistent ska beat and tempo. Around 1966 the beat of ska was slowed and rocksteady was born. Some say that it was a particularly hot Jamaican summer that led to this more relaxed style but the real reason for this change can be traced once again to the continuing influence of American R&B. By the mid 60's R&B was developing into the smoother soul styles of Motown, Memphis and Philadelphia soul. Jamaican musicians responded to this with their own slower smoother styles. The most notable hit of the rocksteady era was 'The Tide is High' by The Paragons. In the 80's this was covered by Blondie and was one of their biggest hits. The influence of another religious revival, Rastafarianism led to further musical developments of ska and rocksteady and reggae was born. As we know Reggae has dominated the Jamaican music scene since.
The BIRTH OF BRITISH SKA
Ska went to England with the immigrants of the early 1960's and was initially known as 'Bluebeat'. The first international ska hit was 'My Boy Lollipop' by Millie Small. It was recorded in England in 1964 for Island Records and featured a young English Mod Rod Stewart, just beginning his own music career on Harmonica. Ska gained popularity amongst the Mod scene and several hits followed including 'Guns of Navarone' by the Skatalites, 'Carry Go Bring Come' by Justin and The Dominoes, and 'Rudy, A Message to You' by Dandy Livingstone. In 1969,
'The Israelites' by Desmond Dekker became the first Jamaican produced recording to become a number one hit in Britain. Other big ska chart hits in 1969 included 'Monkey Man' by Toots and the Maytals, 'Long Shot Kick De Bucket' by The Pioneers and 'Liquidator' by The Harry J Allstars. It is interesting to note that these hits had all been recorded several years earlier in Jamaica and gradually crept into the UK charts over a long period of time.
In 1979 ska enjoyed a revival of popularity. Initially the ska revival was an English phenomenon, but gradually spread to the rest of the world, including Australia. The most notable bands associated with the second wave of ska popularity were The Specials, Madness, The Beat, and The Selecter. All these bands recorded their first albums for 'Two Tone Records', a label established by The Specials keyboard player Jerry Dammers. The label was named after the two tone tonic suits worn by the original ska stars of the 1960's and also reflected the multi racial membership of the bands signed to the label. The trade mark of the company was based on a negative photo of Peter Tosh from an early Wailing Wailers album cover. This 'Rude Boy' logo became affectionately known as Walt Jabsco.
The Two Tone artists relied heavily on the first wave ska stars attitudes and philosophy. The Specials took their name from the 'special' one off recordings made for the early sound system operators in Jamaica and 'Madness' are named after a Prince Buster song. The bands did not attempt to conceal their musical dependence either. They quite rightly believed that if it was a good song you might as well play it. At the time, some fans believed that the cover versions were actually originals. Listed below are some of the classic cover versions by Two Tone bands.
TITLE OF SONG ORIGINAL PERFORMER COVER BY
Rudi, A Message to You Dandy Livingstone The Specials
Too Hot Prince Buster The Specials
Monkey Man Toots & The Maytals The Specials
Guns of Navarone The Skatalites The Specials
One Step Beyond Prince Buster Madness
Madness Prince Buster Madness
Can't Get Used to Losing You Alton Ellis The Beat
Whine & Grine Prince Buster The Beat
Carry Go Bring Come Justin Hinds & the Dominoes The Selecter
The popularity of these cover versions led to a demand for the original recordings and suddenly Symarip's 'Skin head Moonstomp' was in the charts exactly ten years after its first release. Also interesting is the fact that Prince Buster has made more money from royalties paid by cover artists than he ever made from his own album sales.
The two bands also paid tribute to the original ska performers by using musical material from the original recordings. This music was adapted, rearranged and used as the basis of a new original tune. Sometimes, just the lyrics of songs were used to inspire a new song. Listed below are some examples.
ORIGINAL SONG ARTIST ADAPTION ARTIST
Al Capone Prince Buster Gangsters The Specials
Judge Dread Prince Buster Stupid Marriage The Specials
Earthquake/Freezing Up/ Prince Buster The Prince Madness
Orange Street/Ghost Dance
Longshot Kick De Bucket/ Pioneers Skinhead Symphony The Specials
Despite the fact that it relied on pre-existing ska songs, the sound of the Two Tone era was fresh and new. The punk rock era had set new musical rules and second wave ska incorporated this energy. Two Tone recordings are characterised by faster tempos, fuller instrumentation and a harder edge than original 60's ska. All the Two Tone bands were young and from working class backgrounds and so the lyrics reflect their concerns: school, work, politics, crime, racism and having fun.
THE THIRD WAVE
Although enjoying a massive revival in Britain, Europe and, too a lesser extent, Australia, Two Tone ska did not make an impact in America. Bands such as Madness and The Specials were considered 'too English' probably due to their lyrics reflecting their own political and social concerns and the English dance hall type antics of the live shows that was far removed from the demur American stadium rock popular at the same time. Recently ska has enjoyed another wave of popularity. The third wave exists in many forms and combines many different
styles of rock with ska rhythms and instrumentation. Bands such as Hepcat, New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, Jazz Jamaica and The Stubborn All Stars play traditional first wave styled ska. In contrast is the sound of Operation Ivy, Rancid, Voodoo Glow Skulls and Reel Big Fish who favour a harder 'ska-core' sound that is heavily influenced by punk. And there are thousands of bands playing every style in between. Although the sound of these bands is varied, the musical characteristics of the original ska can still be heard although sometimes it is not as obvious.
Don't fight me on this, I did research and have been listening to ska for a long time. Please start to appreciate the classic ska bands, like:
and The Wailers.
I enjoy Two-Tone and Third Wave of course, but it's the first wave that always gets me.