Ska music is a unique and influential genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s, laying the foundation for rocksteady and reggae music. With its catchy rhythms and upbeat melodies, Ska has significantly impacted the global music scene, inspiring several subcultures along the way. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the origins of ska music, its evolution through the three waves, and the numerous subcultures it has inspired.
Origins of Ska music
Ska music emerged in Jamaica as a fusion of Caribbean mento, calypso, American jazz, and rhythm and blues. The genre was characterised by a walking bass line, accented rhythms on the offbeat, and the use of brass instruments such as saxophones and trombones. The first ska recordings were made by artists like Count Ossie, a Nyabhingi drummer from the Rasta community.
The Jamaican scene: First wave of Ska
The first wave of ska music occurred in Jamaica in the early 1960s. This period saw the formation of sound systems by entrepreneurs like Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd, and Duke Reid, who aimed to meet the growing demand for music. As the availability of American R&B and jump blues music dwindled, Jamaican producers began recording their own versions of the genres with local artists.
These initial recordings were made on “soft wax” or “dub plates” and eventually transitioned to 45rpm 7-inch discs by the end of 1959. American shuffle blues heavily influenced the early ska style, but within a few years, it evolved into the more familiar ska sound with the offbeat guitar chop.
Etymology of Ska
There are several theories about the origin of the word “ska.” One explanation suggests that it was coined by musicians to describe the “skat! skat! skat!” sound of the scratching guitar strum. Another theory comes from double bassist Cluett Johnson, who instructed guitarist Ernest Ranglin to “play like ska, ska, ska” during a recording session. Some believe the term “ska” was derived from Johnson’s word “skavoovie,” which he used to greet his friends.
The British 2 Tone Movement: Second wave of Ska
The second wave of ska music, also known as the 2 Tone movement, emerged in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom. This movement was characterised by a fusion of Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with the faster tempos and harder edge of punk rock, resulting in the formation of ska-punk. The genre was named after 2 Tone Records, a record label founded by Jerry Dammers of The Specials.
Ska and subcultures: Rude boys, skinheads, and mods
Ska music has been associated with various subcultures throughout its history. In Jamaica, the “rude boy” subculture embraced ska music as a means to express their discontent with the socio-economic issues faced by the lower classes. The music resonated with this group, and artists like Jimmy Cliff became national folk heroes for addressing the struggles of the “rude boys” in their songs.
In the United Kingdom, the skinhead subculture emerged in the late 1960s and initially found a connection with the “rude boys” through their shared disillusionment with the ruling class. However, their association with ska music diminished as the skinhead culture evolved and became more focused on racial division.
During the same period, British mods also embraced ska music, further contributing to the genre’s popularity in the UK.
Notable 2 Tone bands
The 2 Tone movement produced several influential bands, including:
- The Specials
- The Selector
- The Beat (known as The English Beat in North America and Australia)
These bands often featured multiracial lineups and promoted messages of racial unity through their music.
The third wave of Ska
The third wave of ska music originated in the punk scene of the late 1980s and gained commercial success in the 1990s. This wave involved bands from various countries and saw the fusion of Ska with punk rock, giving rise to the Ska-punk subgenre. Several third wave ska bands achieved mainstream success, including No Doubt, Sublime, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Reel Big Fish.
Ska punk and the American scene
Ska punk emerged as a fusion of ska and punk rock, characterised by dominating guitar riffs and large horn sections. Some of the most prominent ska punk bands include:
- Operation Ivy
- Less Than Jake
- Streetlight Manifesto
This subgenre gained popularity in the United States, particularly in the 1990s, with bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish achieving commercial success and platinum status.
The international Ska scene
Ska music has also made its mark on the international music scene, with thriving Ska communities in various countries. Notable examples include:
- Germany: The Busters and the emergence of German ska bands and festivals in the 1980s.
- Spain: Kortatu, Betagarri, and Ska-P, influenced by the Basque Radical Rock movement.
- Australia: Strange Tenants, No Nonsense, and The Porkers, contributing to the Australian ska scene in the mid-1980s.
- Russia: AVIA and NOM, pioneers of the Russian ska scene in the mid-1980s.
- Japan: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, leading the Japanese ska movement, also known as J-ska, since the mid-1980s.
Ska music has had a lasting impact on the global music landscape, inspiring numerous subcultures and evolving through three distinct waves. Ska has proven to be a versatile and enduring genre, from its origins in Jamaica to its influence on British and American music scenes.