Jamaican Ska is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s, and was the precursor to Rocksteady and Reggae. Ska combined elements of Caribbean Mento and Calypso with American Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat. In the early 1960s, Ska was the dominant music genre of Jamaica and was popular with British mods. Later it became popular with many skinheads.
Music historians typically divide the history of ska into three periods: the original Jamaican scene of the 1960s (First Wave); the English 2 Tone ska revival of the late 1970s (Second Wave); and the third wave Ska movement, which started in the 1980s (Third Wave) and rose to popularity in the US in the 1990s.
There are different theories about the origins of the word Ska. Ernest Ranglin claimed that the term was coined by musicians to refer to the “skat! skat! skat!” scratching guitar strum. Ranglin described the difference between R&B and Ska beats is that the former goes “chink-ka” and the latter goes “ka-chink”. Another explanation is that at a recording session in 1959 produced by Coxsone Dodd, double bassist Cluett Johnson instructed guitarist Ranglin to “play like ska, ska, ska”, although Ranglin has denied this, stating “Clue couldn’t tell me what to play!” A further theory is that it derives from Johnson’s word skavoovie, with which he was known to greet his friends. Jackie Mittoo insisted that the musicians called the rhythm Staya Staya, and that it was Byron Lee who introduced the term ‘ska’. Derrick Morgan said: “Guitar and piano making a ska sound, like ‘ska, ska,’ that’s why we call it SKA. The sound of the guitar and the piano, that’s why we give it the name Ska.”
After World War II, Jamaicans purchased radios in increasing numbers and were able to hear rhythm and blues music from Southern United States cities such as New Orleans by artists such as Fats Domino and Louis Jordan.
The stationing of American military forces during and after the war meant that Jamaicans could listen to military broadcasts of American music, and there was a constant influx of records from the US. To meet the demand for that music, entrepreneurs such as Prince Buster, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, and Duke Reid formed sound systems. As jump blues and more traditional R&B began to ebb in popularity in the early 1960s, Jamaican artists began recording their own version of the genres. The style was of bars made up of four triplets but was characterized by a guitar chop on the off beat – known as an upstroke or skank – with horns taking the lead and often following the off beat skank and piano emphasizing the bass line and, again, playing the skank. Drums kept 4/4 time and the bass drum was accented on the 3rd beat of each 4-triplet phrase. The snare would play side stick and accent the third beat of each 4-triplet phrase. The upstroke sound can also be found in other Caribbean forms of music, such as Mento and Calypso.
One theory about the origin of Ska is that Prince Buster created it during the inaugural recording session for his new record label Wild Bells. The session was financed by Duke Reid, who was supposed to get half of the songs to release. The guitar began emphasizing the second and fourth beats in the bar, giving rise to the new sound. The drums were taken from traditional Jamaican drumming and marching styles. To create the ska beat, Prince Buster essentially flipped the R&B shuffle beat, stressing the offbeats with the help of the guitar. Prince Buster has explicitly cited American rhythm & blues as the origin of ska, specifically Willis Jackson’s song “Later for the Gator”, “Oh Carolina”, and “Hey Hey Mr. Berry”.
The first Ska recordings were created at facilities such as Studio One and WIRL Records in Kingston, Jamaica with producers such as Dodd, Reid, Prince Buster, and Edward Seaga. The Ska sound coincided with the celebratory feelings surrounding Jamaica’s independence from the UK in 1962; an event commemorated by songs such as Derrick Morgan’s “Forward March” and The Skatalites’ “Freedom Sound.” Because the newly-independent Jamaica didn’t ratify the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works until 1994 copyright was not an issue, which created a large number of cover songs and reinterpretations. Jamaican musicians such as The Skatalites often recorded instrumental ska versions of popular American and British music, such as Beatles songs, Motown and Atlantic soul hits, movie theme songs, or surf rock instrumentals. Bob Marley’s band The Wailers covered the Beatles’ “And I Love Her”, and radically reinterpreted Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.
Byron Lee & the Dragonaires performed ska with Prince Buster, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Jimmy Cliff at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. As music changed in the United States, so did ska. In 1965 and 1966, when American soul music became slower and smoother, ska changed its sound accordingly and evolved into rocksteady. However, rocksteady’s heyday was brief, peaking in 1967. By 1968, Ska evolved again into Reggae.
The 2 Tone genre, which began in the late 1970s in the areas in and around the city of Coventry in England, was a fusion of Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with punk rock’s more aggressive guitar chords and lyrics. Compared to 1960s ska, 2 Tone music had faster tempos, fuller instrumentation and a harder edge. The genre was named after 2 Tone Records, a record label founded by Jerry Dammers of The Specials. In many cases, the reworking of classic ska songs turned the originals into hits again in the United Kingdom.
The 2 Tone movement promoted racial unity at a time when racial tensions were high in the UK. There were many Specials songs that raised awareness of the issues of racism, fighting and friendship issues. Riots in British cities were a feature during the summer that The Specials song “Ghost Town” was a hit, although this work was in a slower, Reggae beat. Most of the 2 Tone bands had multiracial lineups, such as The Beat (known as The English Beat in North America and the British Beat in Australia), The Specials, and The Selecter. Although only on the 2 Tone label for one single, Madness was one of the most effective bands at bringing the 2 Tone genre into the mainstream.
Europe, Australia, Asia and Latin America
By the late 1980s, ska had experienced a minor resurgence of popularity in Britain, propelled by bands such as The Burial, The Hotknives and Potato 5, and the re-emergence of the traditional skinhead subculture, ska music festivals, and ska-friendly record labels such as Unicorn Records.
The early 1980s saw a massive international surge in ska’s popularity, particularly in Europe. Germany proved to be one of the more notable countries, producing a large number of ska bands, record labels and festivals. Notable German ska bands included Skaos, Blechreiz and The Busters. Other prominent bands from Europe’s late-1980s/early-1990s ska boom include Mr. Review and Mark Foggo’s Skasters from Amsterdam, Ska-P from Spain, and Skarface from France.
The Australian ska scene flourished in the mid-1980s, following the musical precedents set by 2 Tone, and spearheaded by bands such as Strange Tenants and No Nonsense, both from Melbourne, and later The Porkers, from Newcastle. Some of the Australian ska revival bands found success on their national music charts, most notably Sydney’s The Allniters, who had a #10 hit with a ska cover of “Montego Bay” in 1983.
Japan established its own ska and reggae scenes — the former colloquially referred to as J-ska — in the mid-1980s. The Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, formed in 1985, have been one of the most commercially successful progenitors of Japanese ska.
South America’s ska scene started developing in the mid-1980s. South American ska bands typically play traditional ska rhythms blended with strong influences from Latin music and rock en Español. The most prominent of these bands is Los Fabulosos Cadillacs from Argentina. Formed in 1985, the band has sold millions of records worldwide, scoring an international hit single with “El Matador” in 1994 and winning the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Latin Rock/Alternative album. Other notable bands include: Kongo, Os Paralamas do Sucesso (Brazil); JAS (Peru); Los Auténticos Decadentes (Argentina); Panteón Rococó, Inspector (band); Maldita Vecindad (Mexico); No Te Va Gustar ; Planeta Eskoria (Uruguay); Desorden Público (Venezuela); Elisium (Russia).
By the early 1980s, influenced by 2 Tone, Ska bands began forming throughout the United States. The Uptones from Berkeley, California and The Toasters from New York City—both formed in 1981—were among the first active ska bands in North America, both credited with laying the groundwork for American ska and establishing scenes in their respective regions. While many of the early American ska bands continued in the musical traditions set by 2 Tone and the mod revival, bands such as Fishbone, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Operation Ivy pioneered the American ska punk subgenre, a fusion of ska and punk rock which typically downplayed ska’s R&B influence in favor of faster tempos and guitar distortion.
Two hotspots for the United States’ burgeoning Ska scenes were New York City and Orange County, California. In New York, Toasters frontman Robert “Bucket” Hingley formed independent label Moon Ska Records in 1983. The label quickly became the largest ska independent record label in the United States, distributing titles from east coast bands like The Slackers, The Scofflaws and The Pietasters. The Orange County ska scene was a breeding ground for ska punk and more contemporary pop-influenced ska music, personified by bands such as Reel Big Fish, No Doubt and Sublime. It was here that the term “third wave ska” was coined and popularized by Tazy Phyllips (host of the Ska Parade radio show) to describe the new wave of ska-influenced bands which were steadily gaining notoriety. The San Francisco Bay Area also contributed to ska’s growing popularity, with Skankin’ Pickle, Let’s Go Bowling and the Dance Hall Crashers becoming known on the touring circuit.
The mid-1990s saw a considerable rise in ska music’s underground popularity, marked by the formation of many ska-based record labels, booking organizations and indie zines. While Moon Ska was still the largest of the United States’ ska labels, other notable labels included Jump Up Records of Chicago, which covered the thriving midwest scene, and Steady Beat Recordings of Los Angeles, which covered Southern California’s traditional ska revival popularized by the band Hepcat. Stomp Records of Montreal was Canada’s primary distributor of ska music, carrying titles from Canadian bands such as The Planet Smashers, The Kingpins and King Apparatus. Additionally, many punk and indie rock labels, such as Hellcat Records and Fueled by Ramen, broadened their scope to include both ska and ska punk bands. Asian Man Records (formerly Dill Records), founded by Skankin’ Pickle’s Mike Park in 1996, started out primarily releasing skapunk albums before branching out and releasing early albums by punk bands Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms.
In 1993, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones signed with Mercury Records, becoming the first American ska band to find mainstream commercial success, with their 1994 album Question the Answers achieving gold record status and peaking at #138 on the Billboard 200. In 1995, punk band Rancid, featuring former members of Operation Ivy, released the ska single “Time Bomb” which reached #8 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks, becoming the first major ska hit of the 1990s and launching the genre into the public eye. Over the next few years, a string of notable ska and ska-influenced singles became hits on mainstream radio, including “Spiderwebs” by No Doubt, “Sell Out” by Reel Big Fish and “The Impression That I Get” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, all of whom would reach platinum status with each of their respective albums. By 1996, third wave ska was one of the most popular forms of alternative music in the United States.
By the late 1990s, mainstream interest in third wave ska bands waned as other music genres gained momentum. Moon Ska Records folded in 2000, but Moon Ska Europe, a licensed affiliate based in Europe, continued operating in the 2000s, and was later relaunched as Moon Ska World. In 2003, Hingley launched a new ska record label, Megalith Records.