Ska: the pulse that doesn't die

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Ska: the pulse that doesn't die

Foundation Ska
The Skatalites
Heartbeat/Rounder through Festival

Review by Norm Dixon

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.

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