Imagine this: spring break 1962, Jamaica. You are strolling down the streets of Kingston, enjoying the cool sea breeze and the delightful Caribbean climate. The streets are filled with many sounds. Cars' horns honking, children playing, and people shuffling by. There is one sound, however, that rises above all the hustle and bustle. Horns, guitars, organs, drums, emanating from smoke-filled clubs and bar rooms, fill you ears with a lush sound. This is the sound of ska.
Ska is an old Jamaican form of music that blossomed when Jamaica won its independence from England in 1962. At this time, a man named Clement Dodd decided to create a uniquely Jamaican danceable sound. Ska is a potpourri of different musical styles; and draws influence from many countries. It takes swing, jazz, big band, soul, and rhythm and blues from the U. S., and couples it with calypso, ya-ya, and mento (a form of calypso) from the islands to create the Jamaican ska. The sound of ska is unique to Jamaica and is the original «music of Jamaica.» Its accented upbeat, bouncy rhythms, and colorful horn lines made it perfect for dancing. Ska got its name from the sound made by the guitar as it played on the off beats. This music served as the basis for the slower rocksteady music style which later spawned the ever-popular reggae genre. Ska music finally made its world debut in New York at the 1964 world's fair at the Jamaican exhibition. By this time ska was an established musical genre. Ska later emigrated to England where the English began to develop their own style ska, which is seen in the second wave of ska.
Ska music can be divided into three waves, or periods. Each wave has a characteristic style and sound distinguishing it from the others. Each wave also has bands that represent them respectively. The first wave began in the 1950's and ended in or around 1968. The first wave sound was defined by the keyboard, guitar, or horns playing on the offbeat, and the bands usually had vocals, guitars, bass, drums, piano, and a horn section. This music was dance music; its up tempo and bouncy feel allowed people to skank (ska dance) to it easily. It was during this wave that rocksteady and reggae were also born. These two slower, less instrumental versions of ska were brought about by two reasons: the hot weather made it uncomfortable for people to dance to the fast tempo of the ska music, and the social and political changes going on in Jamaica made people less happy and more subdued. The first wave of ska has many groups that made it famous. These bands are the «founding fathers» of ska. Bands such as the Skatalites, Prince Buster, Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Don Drummond, and Bob Marley and the Wailers served as the basis for future ska bands.
Second wave ska flourished in England in the late 1970's and early 80's. It yielded many popular bands like The Specials, Madness, The Selecter, and The Beat. Second-wave ska had its roots in England and later spread to the US with the formation of the band «Her Majesty's Secret Service.» Second wave ska was characterized by its distinctly different sound and was referred to as two-tone ska. Two-tone ska is faster, tighter and uses more horns than most first-wave Jamaican ska. Black and white checkers are usually associated with the two-tone period. Through the first and second waves, ska was music for the man-in-street, in other words, the working people.
Third wave ska is the ska of the late 80's and 90's. This ska is a sort of revival of ska. Bands of this period show influences from other music styles as well as other waves of ska. Typical third wave bands are Bim Skala Bim, the Allstonians, and The Toasters. Other styles of third wave ska exist. These subgenres of ska are mixes of two ore more other types of music. Some examples are ska-core (ska-hardcore, The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones), salska (latin-ska mix), and skakacore (ska, rap, hardcore mix) as well as others. There are some third wave bands, however, that choose to keep a more traditional sound. Bands such as Hepcat, Engine 54, Stubborn All Stars, and Cucumber Now. These bands sound much like bands of the first wave, but with a slightly «fresher» sound and feel.
We can trace ska from its roots in Jamaica, then to England, and then to the US. Today, the center of ska in the US is probably New York City. New York ska is known. all throughout the country. New York is where many major record labels are based, Moon Records (owned by the famed Toasters), for example, has dozens of bands on its label. In addition, New York is where most of the ska style can be seen. Stores like 99X sell clothes typically worn by rudies (people who follow ska). Ska music has its own lingo and jargon Rude is the 1962 Jamaican version of the word cool, scooters and bowling are also often associated with ska. Rude boys/girls were troublemakers who dressed to impress (gangster-like [show picture]). There is much more to be said for ska, as far as the many small details that explain every aspect of the music, as well as the culture. As a generalization; ska is not just a word describing a type of music, as you may have thought, if you even knew what ska was in the first place; in essence, it is a lifestyle. Ska has its own little niche in society. It has many aspects to it that are more than just the music itself.
Clearly, ska is alive and well in modern society. Hopefully, ska will keep growing and sewing its rude seed throughout the music world. Possibly, the forever asked question, «Ska? What's ska?» will be stricken from the record. Moreover, more and more people will actually know what that short, choppy, awkward sounding word, SKA, really means.