What The Hell Is Ska? – Column

What The Hell Is Ska?

by Grant Thayer

Ska originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a hybrid of the island music (calypso, soca and mento, among others) with the American music that was trickling into the islands (mainly jazz, big band, r&b, early rock, boogie-woogie, and blues). This is called the first wave or the traditional style ska, with bands often playing several instrumental pieces. The sound is danceable and upbeat, usually accented with horns.

In the 1960s, the music slowed down in tempo and developed the offshoot rock steady and later reggae. The Skatalites are considered the grandfathers of ska and still tour today, enjoying more of the respect they deserve, including two recent Grammy nominations. Other early ska performers include Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, and Bob Marley, who later focused on reggae.

In the late ’70s, the British resurgence of ska (the second wave) was made widely popular by The English Beat, The Specials, and Madness. This is also referred to as the 2-Tone movement, named after the Specials’ 2-Tone record company, which also represented the multi-racial integration in the bands. The slow acceptance of ska into the mainstream in the States led to the demise of the second wave. However, the groundwork was already in place for the 3rd wave of ska, which is considered to be the resurgence from the late ’80s to the present.

In the ’90s, ska continues to diverge with several different styles of ska recognized and widely practiced: Traditional or old skool (emulating the first wave Jamaican bands), 2-Tone (this refers to the popular style during the 2nd wave with a bouncier sound), 3rd Wave (contemporary, yet somewhat ambiguous in definition), ska-punk (with punk elements), ska-core (with hardcore elements), swing-ska, ska-jazz, etc. Today, ska enjoys its widest popularity, with bands such as The Skatalites, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bim Skala Bim, The Toasters, The Pietasters, The Scofflaws, Less Than Jake, New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble, Spring Heeled Jack, Mephiskapheles, and Skankin’ Pickle playing all different types of ska to all different types of ska fans. Fans include “rudeboys,” “mods” and “skins” and the way the fans dress (Doc Martens, dark suits, thin ties, flight jackets with patches) as well as the type of dancing, or “skanking,” is a widely practiced aspect of the ska subculture. Other subculture characteristics or icons include the Vespa scooter, Guinness, English soccer or footy, and haircuts/ clothing styles.

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