Ska: the pulse that doesn't die; Reggae: evolution of a rebel music

Foundation Ska
The Skatalites
Heartbeat/Rounder through Festival

Review by Norm Dixon

March 25, 1998 -- Green Left Weekly -- Viewers of late night music television will have noticed a revival of the unmistakable "ba-ba-ba" ska pulse in some of the clips emanating from the US. Punk/thrash bands like Rancid and No Doubt, as well as longer established new-wave ska outfits like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Toasters, are leading what is dubbed the "ska-core" or "third wave ska" movement.

This revival is simply the latest example of how western pop music repeatedly rejuvenates itself (via often circuitous and complex paths) from the music of the African diaspora.

Ska appeared in Jamaica around the time of independence in 1962. It reflected the pride and assertiveness of the Jamaican people as they threw off the shackles of formal British rule. Ska was Jamaica's first indigenous popular music, and its influence has spread far and wide.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Jamaican musicians made their living playing in "society bands" — big bands which played very restrained swing music for the colonial upper crust and their local imitators in swank hotels and nightclubs. Poor Jamaicans, in the countryside and the ghettos, played and listened to traditional, African-derived mento music.

Ska was born when these musicians returned to the homes, clubs and dives in the working-class areas of Kingston to play for the people. They experimented with combining the mento beat with the latest sounds of swing, Afro-Cuban, jazz and r 'n' b they heard blasted across the Caribbean from powerful radio stations in the US south.

Ska's core was a very danceable, speeded-up mento beat which fitted the mood of the increasingly urbanised poor. With this ska pulse, virtually any tune — movie themes, jazz improvisation, r 'n' b rockers, swing and even melodramatic doo-wop crooning — could be transformed. Ska was largely instrumental; saxophones, trombones and trumpet pumped out the "ba-ba-ba" beat, and took turns to solo at centre stage.

The band most identified with ska was the Skatalites. Formed in 1964, it was together for just 14 months. But that short period defined ska. Foundation Ska documents that historic period, collecting 32 of the band's classic hits.

The Skatalites were led by Tommy McCook, Jamaica's premier jazz saxophonist, legendary trombonists Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez, saxophonists Roland Alphonso and Lester Sterling, pianist Jackie Mittoo, bassist Lloyd Brevett, drummer Lloyd Knibbs and Jah Jerry on guitar.

Individually, they were the cream of Jamaica's session musicians, and their sound defined Jamaican music from the late 1950s until the late '60s. Together, they were the original Caribbean super-band, eclipsed only by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

The engine room of the Skatalites was McCook's jazz and Don Drummond's compositions, best exemplified in the cheeky "Christine Keeler", titled after the woman at the centre of a sex scandal which brought down the British Tory government of Harold MacMillan, and "Fidel Castro", a skankin' tribute to the Cuban revolutionary leader.

The penchant for reworking corny tunes until they are downright cool — a trademark of ska in all its "waves" — is shown to best effect on "Exodus", the theme to the movie of the same name.

What shines through Foundation Ska is the youthful exuberance and confidence of the people of the newly independent Caribbean.

Ska's "first wave" did not last long. Don Drummond, who suffered from mental illness, murdered his girlfriend in a deranged fit in 1965, and the band did not survive his incarceration.

The economics of large ska horn ensembles meant that producers soon dispensed with their services in favour of cheaper keyboard- and vocalist-centred groups. By 1968, the ska beat, slowed down, became known as rock steady. Slowed further, it was the basis of reggae.

The ska pulse resurfaced again in Britain between 1978 and 1985. Ska's "second wave" was boosted by opposition to the growth of racism in Thatcher's Britain.

The teenage sons and daughters of West Indian parents who had emigrated to Britain in the 1950s and early '60s, responded to the rise of the racist National Front by rediscovering pride in their Caribbean heritage. Digging through their parents' old records, they rediscovered ska and its aggressive exuberance.

Many of their white friends agreed it was great dance music, and the "two-tone" movement grew. Black and white chequered patterns adorned album artwork. Black and white clothes were worn, along with the skinny ties and pork-pie hats of the Jamaican "rude boys" (Kingston street toughs). All this symbolised racial unity.

Multiracial bands like Special AKA, which evolved into the Specials, and Madness became an accepted part of the new punk scene. Ska and reggae influenced many pop and punk bands, especially the Clash. Socially progressive and politically left-wing lyrics were common. The Skatalites and other pioneers were revered.

Oddly, racist skinheads also adopted variations on ska as their favoured music, simply proving that their goal of turning back the clock to a lily white British working class was impossible and ridiculous.

The rise of a third wave of ska will again find young people rediscovering the origins of this marvellous, rebellious music. Foundation Ska is an essential document for that quest.

A reformed Skatalites, with six of the band's original members, is again performing and recording. Rico Rodriguez features in a new band, Jazz Jamaica, which released its album Skaravan. Even the Specials have reformed. It seems ska's pulse isn't about to die.

From GLW issue 311

The evolution of a rebel music

Wednesday, May 14, 1997 

Get Up, Stand Up: A History of Reggae
Monday, May 19, 8.30pm

Review by Norm Dixon

Reggae is the world's favourite Caribbean music. It is Jamaica's most famous export. Between 1970 and the early 1980s, it ranked as one of the main pop music styles throughout the world. The distinctive relaxed, bass-heavy beat has influenced pop music — whether punk, rock, funk or African pop.

What explains the sudden rise of reggae in 1970s and 1980s, and its relative decline in popularity today?

Get Up, Stand Up gives us some hints. As an introduction to Jamaican music and its evolution, this French-made documentary is good.

Those with some knowledge may find that it does not tell them anything they do not already know and does not explore the controversies that rage amongst reggae's hard-core fans in any detail. It's a thumbnail sketch, that's all. But its shortcomings are more than made up by the deluge of classic footage of Jamaican music's legends.

Reggae evolved with the struggle of the African-Jamaican people. It is rebel music. Over 150 years until 1807, more than 2 million slaves were transported from Ghana and Nigeria to work the British-owned plantations of Jamaica. Music was one of the ways they survived that living nightmare.

The most important early influence was the music of the Maroon community. The Maroons were fugitives from slavery who sought refuge in the remote interior. They fought a guerilla war until the British government was forced to grant them independence in 1738.

The Maroons maintained, largely intact, the culture, beliefs and music of their African forebears. The rhythms of the Maroons formed the basis of subsequent Jamaican music.

The modern evolution of reggae began with ska in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A mixture of Jamaican beats and horn-laden jazz, ska reflected the fact that Jamaica was within radio range of the US, so African-American swing, jump blues and later doo-wop vocals and soul all made their mark.

Ska skanked in Jamaica's independence in 1960. From ska evolved the more vocal-oriented pop known as rock steady or lovers' rock.

While the exact date of its emergence is one the great debates, reggae as we know it today, with its distinctive "heat beat" rhythm, came into being in the late 1960s.

Reggae in the 1970s began to reflect the growing influence of the persecuted Rastafarian religious sect. Rastas combined a form of fundamentalist Afrocentric Christianity with utopian rural socialism and pacifism. Once in the ghettos of Kingston, Rastafarianism took on a distinct class bias towards the poor and unemployed youth and developed into the Caribbean's liberation theology.

The overtly political reggae stars — the most prominent being Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear, and later Jimmy Cliff and, in London's Brixton, Linton Kwesi Johnson — were also deeply influenced by the victories of the anti-colonial struggles that swept Africa through the 1960s and the anti-apartheid struggles in southern Africa.

Jamaica itself was not immune from the radicalisation that was also felt in the Caribbean, culminating in the revolution in Grenada in 1979.

It was the openly radical, class conscious, pro-liberation nature of reggae in the 1970s and early 1980s that led to its sudden widespread popularity throughout the world, especially amongst the world's black populations and young people.

Punks in Britain like the Clash embraced it. The influence of reggae on UB40, Sting's Police and even Boy George's Culture Club is clear. The sounds of the insurgent ghetto youth of Jamaica struck a chord in the working-class ghettos of London, Sydney, Paris and New York.

As the political radicalisation that went hand in hand with reggae's rise was quelled by Reaganism (literally when the US invaded Grenada in 1983) and Thatcherism, so did reggae's popularity take a relative tumble.

Any fan of political reggae can tell you that left-wing lyrics have been few and far between over the last 10 years. In their stead has been the apolitical commercialised sexist and nihilist party music known as dance hall and the reggae-meets-house music called jungle.

"Conscious" reggae has been little more than the reactionary and wacky elements of the Rasta religion shorn of its revolutionary political interpretation, best represented by the music of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.

Has reggae had its day as a rebel music? I doubt it. There remain radical artists — new and veterans — who are prepared to bring reggae to the service of new radicalisations. It still appeals to radical youth. As long as that is the case, reggae remains rebel music.

From GLW issue 274