Three Waves of Ska Music is one medium through which a generation can express itself. For a generation of suppressed, restless, working-class youths living in early 1960’s Jamaica, this voice was a genre of music known as ska. Since its original appearance, ska has resurfaced twice. Ska music has been presented to three generations of fans in three separate “waves.” Its humble beginnings lead to one of the most influential styles of music present in the world. By 1962, Jamaica was no longer under British rule.
Jamaican culture and music began to reflect the new found optimism in its independence. Since the early 1940’s, Jamaica had adopted and adapted many forms of American musical styles. The predominantly black inhabitants of Jamaica took a liking to rhythm and blues music (Davis and Simon 38), and with imported American records, “enterprising businessmen attempted to string up small sound systems consisting of radio, turntable, and independent speaker boxes” (Davis and Simon 38). These portable sound systems provided entertainment at dance halls. Owners of different sound systems competed against each other at the halls. The sound systems were run by two individuals, the deejay and the selector, dressed in “spangled waistcoats, black leather Dracula capes, imitation ermine robes, Lone Ranger masks, and rhinestone-studded crowns” (White 4).
The deejay job was to introduce each record and to enhance the rhythm of the music! by chanting along with the record. Selectors chose records and used the controls to increase or decrease bass, treble, or volume. Musicians picked up on the elements of the rhythm and blues and combined it with traditional Jamaican mento music. The result was the first wave of ska. Musically, ska is “a shuffle-rhythm close to mento but even closer to the backbeat of the r&b, with the accent on the second and fourth beats, often moving in a 12-bar blues-frame.
The afterbeat, strummed by a rhythm guitar or played on the piano . . . came to be characteristic of the form” (Davis and Simon 38). A horn section, usually consisting of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones, was vital to the music. Skilled musicians began to team up. Classic bands, such as the Skatalites, were formed and backed up vocal groups and singers.
The Wailers (including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston), Desmond Dekker, the Maytals, and Laurel Aitken were the most popular performers at the time. Songs written about Trench Town (the ghettoes), rude boys (street thugs), and about romance were prevalent, however, religious themes could also be found in the songs. In 1965, the Skatalites disbanded, and slowly ska transformed into another type of music, rock steady. Rock ste! ady is more dependent on the rhythm, provided by the bass guitar and drums, than ska was. For the meantime, ska took a backseat to the new styles sweeping the country. After ska had been developed in Jamaica, it was “exported” by artists traveling to Great Britain.
There it was known as “blue beat.” By the mid 1970’s, early British punk bands were infusing reggae, a style of music that came from rock steady, into their music. Near the end of the decade, bands began to use ska instead of reggae because of its upbeat, danceable rhythm. This faster paced ska came to be known as 2 tone. One of the messages of 2 tone ska was the promotion of racial harmony. One of the symbols of 2 tone was a cartoon character named Walt Jabsco, a man in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, sunglasses, pork pie hat, white socks and black loafers.
The use of black and white in the drawing was supposed to symbolize the peaceful coexistence of different races. As Strauss noted, “The attitude of ska music has always been one of having fun in the face of oppression, as encapsulated in a warning made famous by the Jamaican legend Prince Buster: ‘Enjoy yourself! . It’s later than you think.'” (n. pag.). The third wave of ska began around 1990 in America.
Bands influenced by the 2 tone ska scene began to use more punk and metal music. The combination is much faster than 2 tone, and sounds very different from the original Jamaican brand of ska. The sound has transformed much since its birth. Suzan Colon comments on the evolution of ska, “if ska was Star Trek, this would be Kirk-era, and today’s ska would be Picardian” (28). Bands such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Operation Ivy, and No Doubt have successfully revived the entire ska scene.
Today, rude boys and rude girls can be seen on the street, in clubs, and at school and work. In its three different phases, ska has given voices to seemingly voiceless generations. Each time it comes back, a new message is taken up, however, the old messages have not been forgotten. Ska has influenced many things including fashion, antiracism, social classes, as well other music. Ska originated in a small poor country, yet it went on to spread throughout the world.
Works Cited Colon, Suzan. “Rudeboy Awakening: Spin’s guide to the history of ska.” Spin. July 1997: 28 Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon. Reggae International. New York: Rogner & Bernhard, 1982. Strauss, Neil.
“The Sound of New York: Ska. Ska? Yes, Ska.” New York Times 1995, n. pag. White, Timothy. “The Fire this Time: Bob Marley, the Wailers, and the Golden Age of Ska.” New York: CBS Records Inc., 1977.