Day in the Life, Music

The Roots and Culture of Jamaican Ska

An article I found while researching a project for my public speaking class

The Roots and Culture of Jamaican Ska: Then and Now
By Rachel Howard,

It started in Jamaica in the late 1950’s, but basically has remained underground ever since then. Much of the music today would not be here if it did not exist. It is ska music. Ska is the first commercial indigenous pop music of Jamaica. It started as a people’s music, and as a form of entertainment. Ska was not well-liked at first by the middle and upper-class in Jamaica, but it soon became the main music there. Everyone has heard of reggae, and reggae’s king Bob Marley. Marley, in fact, was a ska artist to begin with. Ska is the “grandfather of reggae,” and reggae is one of only many forms of music to have evolved from ska. In the 40 years that ska has been around it has changed a great deal. It went from having a slow mellow beat to being more like punk than the Jamaican ska it once was. The message is the same, however: unity. People who listen to and play ska often are very active socially whether it be in anti-racist movements, or political rallies. The roots are what counts. Ska is a very important genre of music with roots that should not be ignored.

Almost everyone listens to music, but they never really sit down and wonder where it came from. That is what ska is all about. The listeners always are curious about where it came from and what it means. Ska is more than a type of music. It is a way of life, and a way to think. From ska evolved many types of great music, and also many great social issues. The main one is the anti-racist view. The skinheads have the strongest view on that. When people hear the word “skinhead” they automatically think of the nazi-fascists who hated all races other than their own. The roots of skinheads are far from the racism and violence they are known for today. The skinheads involved with ska, and most of the skinheads in the world are not racist “boneheads” (as the non-racist skinheads call them) as most people think. The non-racist skins, or traditional skins as they will be referred to from now on, lived to make sure no one would be discriminated against simply because of the color of their skin. They were non-political and sometimes not very violent either. The often violent non-racist skins are called S.H.A.R.P.S., which stands for SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice. They often would beat up racists for their beliefs, which is why they shaved their heads, often to the skin (hair would get in the way during street fights). Both SHARPS and the traditional skins are working class citizens, another reason for the short hair. The majority of the world’s skinhead population are non-racist, but the racist- skins are the notorious ones, giving the traditional skins a bad name.

The skinheads started in Jamaica towards the beginning of ska music. They were raised on ska. They, however, were not the most important. The “rude boys” were the primary listeners, club-goers, and visible fashion setters in the ska scene. The rude boys were “rough rebellious youth who reacted to widespread political and economic tensions” in Jamaica during the 1950’s and 1960’s by “emulating Hollywood gangster characters” by wearing suits and causing chaos. The “rudies,” as they were often called, respected the gangsters and their attire is still here today. They were proud of working and earning a living and they enjoyed dressing up to show how they could accomplish tasks as well, and usually better, than anyone else. The word “ska,” and the music, is rumored to have been started by a man who wanted a new type of music in Jamaica that would reflect how the people felt. Ska is influenced by blues and soul music. The first formal ska band was The Skatalites. They started in 1963 and are still touring today, although with different members. The Skatalites were composed of 10 rudies including a full horn section. Don Drummond, their trombone player, was considered the best ever trombone player in Jamaica before he killed his girlfriend and then died in a mental institution in the 1960’s. They are considered the most legendary ska band. Back in the early days of ska, however, it was hard for the tunes to get around.

It was often difficult to hear ska is Jamaica. There was only one way to hear it, though, and people did. This way was through the soundsystems, and the soundsystems are what continued the progression of ska. These were “mobile discotheques” which first appeared in Jamaica after World War 2. Jamaican audiences did not take to rock, so the soundsystem deejays had to compete fiercely. This influenced the development of ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Prince Buster, one of the founders of ska, wrote a song called, “They Got to Go” protesting the soundsystems. “I told them they had to go and make way for the new local music, which was ska. I was the first promoter of ska in Jamaica. My soundsystem was based on ska and that’s why I’m number one.” Buster continues to say, ” What people don’t know is that there never really was a dance called ‘ska’. The proper dance in Jamaica to ska music was the bebop dance, push and spin, and natural Jamaican things like flashing (snapping) the fingers and pickup moves from Pocomania and mento (old acoustic Jamaican folk music). All of reggae music is still basically ska,” Buster finishes up saying. Some say the skank focuses primarily on expression of the drum and bass lines. It also can be danced to the beat of the guitar. Louise Bennet (Jamaican poet) associates it with the “weak kneed” yanga step indicative of mento dancing. It is a very free loose dance where the dancers often just flail around and do whatever moves them.

Most ska bands consist of many members, and they are all needed due to the many instruments used. The core of most ska songs, especially the early ones, is the horn section. It consists of an alto and tenor sax, maybe two, a trombonist, trumpet player, stand up bass, vocalist, and sometimes an organ or piano. The guitar is played on the upbeat in a quick staccato style.

Reggae is one of the most popular types of music around, and everyone loves Bob Marley. Reggae is just one of the types of music to evolve from ska, but another type of music came first. It was called rocksteady. During the summer of 1965 the weather was extremely hot in Jamaica. The fast pace of ska was too hard to dance to, and the music gradually started to change to rocksteady. The horns were scaled down, organs added, and the bass pumped up. The slowing of the music opened way for vocal groups such as Desmond Dekker, The Jamaicans, Phyllis Dillion, and Keith and Tex. Rocksteady was first to become big in England with the working class who were evolving into the traditional skins. Desmond Dekker moved to England and this is when ska started its second wave.

Desmond Dekker was the first ska artist to get major radio play. He was the first to ever get radio play in America. He moved to England in the mid 1960’s to spread the word of ska. His song “Israelites” was the first number one ska hit. It hit number one in 1968. The England ska craze is when everything sprouted. Trojan Records started. Trojan was a major British reggae and ska record company founded by Chris Blackwell and Lee Goptal in 1968. They signed Desmond Dekker and ska made history, at least for a few years, in Britain. The major accomplishment of ska was the famed “2 Tone label.” Started by Jerry Dammers, an immigrant from India, the 2 Tone label took over the British music scene in the late 1970’s and 80’s. The 2 Tone mentality “was basically about black and white people playing (music) together,” says Pauline Black, lead singer for The Selector, one of the female headed 2 Tone bands. By February 1980 there were seven 2 Tone singles, all of which had sold at least a quarter of a million copies each (Marshall 24). The Specials are the most popular of the 2 Tone bands and they are still around today. “Gangsters” was the first song to be distributed by 2 Tone and it zoomed straight to the top 10. The first number one hit by a 2 Tone band was The Specials’ “Too Much Too Young.” Due to alcohol abuse, fights, debts, and “too-much-too-soon,” after 7 years the 2 Tone label was gone. Most people will agree that 2 Tone was more than just a label, it was a way of life and its own separate culture for those years in England. Dammers, the founder of 2 Tone, disagreed, saying, “To me, 2 Tone was just a record label, no more no less.”

Although 2 Tone did have some punk influences, it was nothing compared to the “third wave” of ska which started in the mid 1980’s with a band called the Toasters. (“Toasting” goes back to the first wave of ska and the soundsystems. It was a deejay art form which transformed the soundsystem deejay into someone who plays an important role in the music. Toasting is thought to have been originated by Count Machouki, and it refers to the deejay talking or chanting over the recorded music at soundsystem dances. This lead to Dub music, which was really just a toasted over version of an original song, but it often was unrecognizable.) The Dub evolution happened in the beginning stages of ska, and The Toasters wanted to go back to the roots of ska, 30 years after it started. They are the minority however.

In about 1987 the first big ska band really was not ska at all. It was punk, with an upbeat guitar. The roots of ska seemed to be lost in the music that was called ska but had essentially no similarities to the music of the 50’s. It had no horns and was much much more upbeat. It drew a different type of crowd, a crowd that mostly had no idea what ska was about, or what it meant. There was violence and racist riots which angered ska purists who wanted their roots back. There are now hundreds of ska bands all over the country, some with the steady “skankable” tempo and horn sections of the 50’s, and some who have only seconds of ska or a small horn section, while the rest of their songs are overpowered by the punk sound. There are ska bands in every country in the world, each may have a different sound, but it is still important for them to remember their roots. There are ska-jazz bands, there are “big band” ska bands, there are Latin ska bands, bands from Australia, Germany, Canada, Argentina, and almost every country of the world. They all may have a different way to play, but that does not mean they have to exploit and forget their roots. Many ska fans have taken the time to figure out what the roots of the music are, and have taken on the ska non-racist mentality.

There is so much more to ska than just sticking a tape in your stereo and hearing it play in the background. So many types of music have a cause. Ska is about knowing where it came from and never forgetting that. It is about knowing that it has remained virtually underground for 40 years, but yet has still managed to stay alive. It is beginning to surge up again, getting radio play, but the music now is not real. The radio listeners have no idea what they are listening to, and they do not even care. It is about non-racism, and equal rights for everyone. The Scofflaws, one of the 3rd wave ska bands who have managed to keep their roots, sum it up saying “It doesn’t matter if you’re black. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, ’cause we are the Scofflaws and we’re gonna rocksteady tonight.” Ska is for skankin’ and having fun with your friends, no matter what race they may be. It is important for people to know about a music that may become extremely popular in a few short years. As you can tell, the music has changed over the years. This is expected, but it still angers people because it is being exploited. Even in the 50’s Jimmy Cliff, a first wave ska artist, friend of Prince Buster, and soundsystem promoter, said, “It (ska and the soundsystems) was just a bunch of businessmen trying to exploit it.” Now it is television and racists who are exploiting it. If someone is a racist and they like ska, then perhaps they should not even be allowed to listen, because if they knew anything, they would know that the roots go against everything that they believe. There is a great deal of information about ska out there, and people do not even know about the information, much less the music. There are books, people to talk to, internet information, radio DJ’s, and even a house in downtown Sacramento dedicated to ska and traditional skinheads kids. People should realize that there is a beginning to everything. In ska, it is the roots that are important, and no one who is a rudie should ever forget that. Ska is more than a music, it is a way of life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s