The History Of Ska
Grab some punk musicians, throw in some trumpet, trombone, and sax, then add twangy upstrokes on guitar. Mix that with fiery tempos and fun energetic dancing and you have the contemporary version of Ska music. In the 90’s Ska music became associated with and the anthem for the skateboarding community and a unique take on traditional punk music. There is really no middle ground with this genre. You either love it or hate.
A lot of people are unfamiliar with the origins of this music and believe it just sprouted from punks and bored teenagers. However, like many other genres, Ska has its own diverse history and went through many dynamic changes over the years.
Ska originated in the late 1950’s on the island of Jamaica. That’s right, this music even predated the country’s signature sound, reggae. Turns out, Jamaica has a rich and diverse musical history! Ska started as a harmonious blend of Caribbean Calypso, jazz, and blues.
After WWII, the remaining American troops who were station in Jamaica would receive radio broadcasts and play American jazz and blues music. Once the supply of music ran out, the natives were forced to come up with their own versions of what they heard from America. Thus, Ska was born. The origin of the name ‘SKA’ has a few interpretations, but many believe it is in reference to the sound the rhythm guitar or piano makes.
Let’s take a look at how Ska evolved has over the years since its inception in Jamaica.
Original Jamaica Ska- Late 50’s
As we mentioned earlier, Ska was developed in response to the music that native Jamaicans heard resonating from America. Originally, the music was “a direct copy of American shuffle-blues” that had slight undertones of traditional music from the island. The true Ska sound developed a few years later with the characteristic up stroke ‘guitar chop’ and upbeat rhythms heard in some rhythm and blues tunes. The happy and light feeling of Ska “coincided with the celebratory feelings of Jamaica’s independence from the UK in 1962.”
The very first recordings of this music occurred in Kingston, Jamaica. The producers at some facilities on the island were also responsible for adapting the traditional ska sound. One in particular was Cecil Campbell, better known by his stage name Prince Buster. His records, songs, and vocal styles led Ska in the direction that cultivated the contemporary sound you hear today. He recorded many of the famous Jamaican musicians in the 60’s and helped to put his country on the musical map.
His legacy spreads far and wide not only in Jamaica but to various parts of the world. In fact, his recordings and songs help to spark the next wave of Ska that sparked in England.
As interests and styles began to change, so did Ska. As music in America became “smoother and slower” Jamaican Ska evolved into another genre called rocksteady. Once this brief period ended, reggae gained massive popularity and is still highly regarded today.
Some earlier examples of Ska bands include: The Blues Busters, The Ethiopians, The Skatalites, and The Wailers.
By the end of the 60’s and into the 70’s, Ska had made its way all the way to England where the musicians put their own unique blends into it. The result was a separate genre known as 2-tone or two-tone.
England’s version of Ska’s revival occurred in Coventry, England. The movement was spearheaded by a young musician named Jerry Dammers who was inspired by Jamaican music. He is responsible for coining the name of the genre and was known as the keyboard player in the popular 2-tone band, the specials. The name in fact came from a record label he started as well as “a desire to transcend and defuse racial tensions in Thatcher-era Britain.”
This music combined laid back traditional Jamaican Ska with the angsty punk attitude and unrelenting high energy. Punk was a popular genre on its own.
This music laid the groundwork for the ska punk, or third wave ska era that spread to the United States.
Examples of 2-tone: Madness, the English Beat, Bad Manners, and the Bodysnatchers.
Finally, we have the most recent genre that has original Ska roots, Third Wave or Ska Punk. This originated in the UK and the US in the late 80’s and became commercially relevant and successful in the 90’s.
Ska punk still has similar tones to Jamaican Ska as well as European 2-tone but is heavily influenced by straight punk-rock music. It differs from punk in that there are usually horns like Saxophone, trombones, or trumpets. Also, it is usually “faster and heavier” than originally Ska music.
In the United States, this genre was widely popular in New York City and parts of California. This style is very upbeat and fun and is a pleasant combination of Jamaican roots music and fast-tempo horn music.
Examples of Third Wave/ Ska Punk Bands: Less Than Jake, Catch 22, Gold Finger, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime, and Rx Bandits.