Randi Hernandez
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Journey Into Sound: Jamaican Ska


Stellar Releases from Stranger Cole, The Skatalites, The Melodians, Byron Lee and The Dragonaires, and Lord Creator

Stellar Releases from Stranger Cole, The Skatalites, The Melodians, Byron Lee and The Dragonaires, and Lord Creator

Which kind of musical genre would most likely be categorized as “The music of Jamaica?” Most people would likely assume that reggae is the music best associated with this Caribbean island getaway. Sadly, some people even believe that Bob Marley created the entire reggae genre all by himself! In reality, there were many important musicians before Mr. Marley, and many types of popular music genres that existed in the late 1950’s before reggae was even a category. Many of these short-lived genres were, in fact, rich with cultural and historical importance. Let’s go on a Journey Into Sound to Jamaica and explore Ska, specifically, First Wave Ska!

Ska music was instrumental(!) in the discovery of reggae music. And reggae wasn’t the only offspring of Ska – the various permutations of the Ska genre over time eventually turned into a multitude of other related, albeit distinct, types of music – music which would later come to be known as Rocksteady, 2 Tone, and Ska Punk (AKA Third Wave). Contrary to popular belief, reggae is not the Homo Habilis of the Jamaican music game. By the 1950’s, Jamaicans had been exposed to many of the American musical styles, and by the time World War II ended, there were countless bands in Jamaica already. American R&B was also readily available on the radio in Jamaica (http://www.allmusic.com/explore/style/d386). Gradually, Jamaican musicians started to incorporate these new styles into their own acts, and as a result – Ska was born.

The Fabulous Desmond Dekkar

The Fabulous Desmond Dekkar

How does one recognize Ska? Ska is characterized by chords made up of short, stuccato guitar strums on the “Offbeat” instead of on the “Downbeat.” This means that the “Offbeat,” or the “Upstroke” of the guitar strum should fall on the 2nd and 4th beats when counting in 4/4 time (http://books.google.com/books?id=felkD8CI97sC&pg=PA30&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false). The beat of a Ska song is essentially just a flipped R&B shuffle beat. The “Upstroke” or “Upbeat” is also known as the “Skank.” The guitar scratch actually sounds like a repeated “Skank” noise, or as musician Ernest Ranglin supposedly described it, as a “Skat! Skat! Skat!,” sound (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ska). Another theory is that the word Ska was coined by double bassist Cluett Johnson: Allegedly, he used the word “Skavoovie” to greet his friends (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ska).

Top L-R, The Origin of Ska: Producer Coxsone Dodd at his studio, Producer Duke Reid, Studio One in Kingston - The people and places involved in the first Ska recordings

Top L-R, The Origin of Ska: Producer Coxsone Dodd at his studio, Producer Duke Reid, Studio One in Kingston - The people and places involved in the first Ska recordings

Ska is said to contain elements of:

1. Jamaican Mento – The music of Jamaica’s rural population, otherwise referred to as the “country music” of Jamaica. The music had an acoustic, informal feel (http://www.mentomusic.com/WhatIsMento.htm), and the vocals were often accompanied by a single-hand drum, a banjo, a gourd shaker, a thumb piano, and an instrument called an mbira (http://worldmusic.about.com/od/genres/p/Mento.htm).
2. Trinidadian Calypso – This music is similar to Mento, but is not to be confused with Mento!!! According to the authors of www.mentomusic.com:

…mento is a distinctly different sound from calypso, with its own instrumentation, rhythms, pacing, vocal styles, harmonies, and lyrical concerns.

Calypso has an Afro-Caribbean heritage and was primarily developed on the island of Trinidad (http://jamaica-guide.info/arts.and.entertainment/calypso/). Trinidadian calypso was the Caribbean’s top musical export, so some Mento music was improperly identified as Calypso, just because it came from the Caribbean islands. To further confuse things, Mento artists were sometimes known to play songs with a Calypso feel, and Calypso artists would often play songs that were traditionally understood to have Mento origins. In other words: None of the sources specifically named the explicit differences between the two types of music!! Rather than make the argument that one type of music influenced the other, I would venture to guess that the two genres were so similar that maybe both sounds evolved naturally, independently from one another?
3. American Jazz/Soul
4. American R&B

Prince Buster: In front of his sound system, a few of his releases, and during a performance

Prince Buster: In front of his sound system, a few of his releases, and during a performance

Rude Boys
Ska is generally thought of as “happy music”, as the lyrics to some of the songs commemorated Jamaica’s Independence from the UK in 1962 (Check The Skatalites’ “Freedom March” in the playlist). Most of the time, DJs and musicians recorded singles and then played them at outside clubs called sound systems, which were essentially mobile DJ stations (http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-03-23/entertainment/17170174_1_jamaican-ska-ska-bands-third-wave-ska). The competition between the working DJs and their sound systems could sometimes be intense; the parties could potentially turn violent within seconds.
Raj from Raj Records writes:

“The sound systems began recording their own tracks to gain an advantage over the others, purposely not labeling the vinyl so others could not see what was playing and ‘steal’ it for their own sound systems

(http://sonic.net/~raj/disciples/history.html).
Rude Boys usually found temporary employment from sound systems, but this created a lot of gang violence – The sound system war escalated to the point that the disaffected Rude Boys were sent to competitor sound system parties to disrupt competitors’ dances. Rude Boys were also known as Dance Hall Crashers (http://sonic.net/~raj/disciples/history.html).

Prince Buster: During a sound system, in front, and his album FABulous

Prince Buster: During a sound system, in front, and his album FABulous


Fun Facts

*Calypso artists often added a royalty-type of title to their name when they recorded, for example in the case of Prince Buster
*The first Calypso song to be released in the U.S. was Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (the Banana Boat Song)” – You know, the song from Beetlejuice!!
* After the First Wave of ska ended, a ska revival movement swept England in the 80’s. This movement was called 2 Tone, and the sound was characterized by faster, punk-driven tempos. 2 Tone promoted racial unity, which was represented by “two tones” – black and white. Bands like: The Specials, The Beat.
*Note: First Wave ska was joyous, because it was associated with freedom and independence. Doesn’t it seem suspect that by way of the 2 Tone movement, The English essentially took Ska away from the Jamaicans and claimed it as their own? Just a thought.
*Third Wave of the Ska revival is known as the Ska punk phase. Bands like: The Toasters, Reel Big Fish, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Unfortunately, this phase of the movement was also associated with skinheads ☹

Follow the link to check out a list of “Essential Ska CDs” (not compiled by me)

Please enjoy my playlist below!!

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One Response to “Journey Into Sound: Jamaican Ska”

  1. Barbara says:

    Wow….I learned a lot about ska…never knew…thanks! Great article …

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