This page is a short history of original Jamaican ska between its creation in the late 1950s and the rise of reggae in 1968. Third-wave ska's popularity in the 1990s and beyond has taken attention away from the fresh, original, and (to some) vastly superior first wave, so the original music deserves to be properly understood in its context and given its proper credit.
EARLY JAMAICAN MUSIC
Jamaica spent nearly three hundred years as a British colony, with an overwhelmingly African population (because the island was basically a large plantation). Even after the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, the large black majority remained poor and mostly untouched by British culture. Only in areas with concentrations of whites did elements of European culture have much influence. For example, church music (mostly Anglican, Baptist, and Methodist hymns) and sea chanteys (brought by British mariners) had a great impact on the black population, who gradually fused these with their own African-based musical traditions.
Jamaica received few European musical influences because of the minimal white presence, even after the advent of commercial radio. Brass-band music, brought by British troops, slowly filtered into Kingston's musical scene after 1890, thanks to the Alpha Boys School, which educated poor urban youth. Years later, some of its former students formed the nucleus of the Skatalites, among them Don Drummond.) Though Kingston's small middle class was familiar with mainstream North American and British popular music (jazz reached Jamaica by 1930), the vast lower classes kept their own African-based folk music, which by 1950 emerged as mento, a strongly percussive guitar-based style with lilting rhythms and a bass-heavy, shuffling 2/4 beat. Mento was played by itinerant street performers using portable instruments — guitars, banjos, bongos, and a large thumb piano called a "rhumba box." The music bears some resemblance to rhumba, an African-derived style that developed in Cuba and was revived in the former Belgian Congo by 1950s artists like Grand Kallé and L'African Jazz. Also, mento uses clever or ribald lyrics with double entendres; the Jolly Boys' "Touch Me Tomato" is a good example. It remained popular only with the lower classes, since what little radio there was dismissed mento as "street music." (The Jolly Boys, circa 1964. From www.mentomusic.com — dead link)
Jamaican broadcasting arrived rather late, making its debut in 1939 and broadcasting as little as four hours daily as late as 1947. Most early programming consisted of BBC Radio relays. After 1950, when Radio Jamaica and Rediffusion (RJR) formed, musical programming was mostly British and American pop and jazz tunes. What little Caribbean music appeared was calypso, which isn't a native Jamaican form — it's from Trinidad and its rhythms are more complex than those of mento or ska. Also, it wasn't very popular with the masses, few of whom had radios and many of whom considered calypso "tourist music."
R&B AND THE BIRTH OF SKA
The turning point for Jamaican music came in the mid-1950s, when American rhythm and blues grew popular in the States and was increasingly broadcast on AM radio stations in the South — mainly Memphis, New Orleans, and Miami (all relatively close to Jamaica). At the same time, radio ownership grew among Jamaica's lower classes, and listeners whose tastes were ignored by RJR found American R&B refreshing and relevant. Also, mento artists (whose music never caught on outside Jamaica, despite efforts to sell it overseas) found the rolling, lilting rhythms of artists like Fats Domino and Louis Jordan to their tastes and quickly adopted the style. However, they didn't just adopt R&B because it was there; they chose it because its rhythms suited popular tastes. (Jamaicans were selective and weren't seduced by American rock 'n' roll in general; they didn't borrow from rockabilly, for example.)
In addition to growing radio audiences, Kingston also gained an active recording industry and R&B scene. Jamaica's first recording facility, Federal Studios, opened in 1954 and was followed four years later by future prime minister Edward Seaga's WIRL. Both started recording local talent as it emerged in the late 1950s. Also, imported R&B records (brought by Jamaicans who worked in the States after World War II) sparked an active dance scene in Kingston, centered on competing "sound systems" (portable discotheques, sometimes borne on flatbed trucks). These were most Jamaicans' first exposure to American-made R&B and radically changed popular musical tastes on the island. The few sound system operators able to afford the equipment became major influences on Kingston's young musicians, since they controlled the supply of imported records and spread the sounds at dances from the mid-1950s well into the 1960s. Some sound system operators, like Arthur "Duke" Reid, Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, and Prince Buster (born Cecil Campbell), became record producers after 1958, when New Orleans R&B stagnated and local musicians had fused the native mento with the popular imported style. (Duke Reid, circa 1965. From http://www.georgwa.demon.co.uk — dead link)
The first identifiable ska tunes are "Manny-O" by Joe Higgs (1958) and "Oh! Carolina" by the Folkes Brothers (1960), both recorded in Kingston. The latter song especially deserves attention; fundamentally a standard R&B, driven by a pumping piano sound and doo-wop styled vocals, it is set apart by the burru drumming by Count Ossie, a Rastafarian and long a figure in Jamaican music. This unique trait, though, would disappear for years, as ska adopted a more brass-based sound, though the horns were played like percussion (short bleats which supplied extra rhythm instead of melodies).
THE HEYDAY OF SKA: 1960-66
During its peak years (1960-66), Kingston's ska scene was remarkably active and varied as the style caught on with Jamaicans both at home and in Britain, where large numbers had emigrated since the late 1940s to seek work. Though commonly considered one-dimensional, almost a novelty music, 1960s ska was far more sophisticated than that. In a sense, it was really a dialogue between black American music and Jamaican musical sensibilities. New Orleans-style R&B continued to be the chief influence; though by 1960 it had lost much of its novelty, Jamaican singers like Al T. Joe (sometimes called "Jamaica Fats"), Cornell Campbell, Skitter, and Derrick Morgan continued in that vein. A few ska artists also borrowed from other American styles. For example, Clancy Eccles' "River Jordan" is remarkably similar to American doo-wop and early Motown, while the Bubbles' terrific instrumental "The Wasp" features a skating rink-style organ, bluesy sax playing, and a curiously honky-tonk piano.
However, by 1964 ska began to divide into two camps, though both were still primarily dance-oriented. One was more pop-oriented; artists like Kentrick Patrick (Lord Creator) and the young Jimmy Cliff sang upbeat, romantic songs influenced even more by black American pop than by grittier mento or R&B. In addition, the distinctive Jamaican patois is rarely noticeable on these recordings, and lyrics tend to be about romance (albeit very sexist) or playful nonsense (nursery rhymes like Eric Morris' versions of "Humpty Dumpty" and "Solomon Gundie").
The other strain, more often recorded on the Island and Trojan labels, was more percussive, brass-oriented, and lilting. Though also dance-oriented, this variety of ska was more African-sounding, bearing a notable resemblance to the rhumba recorded in the former Belgian Congo during the 1950s by artists like Le Grand Kallé and Rochereau. Artists like the Skatalites and Baba Brooks recorded dense-sounding, bass- and brass-heavy instrumentals that definitely stood apart from American pop, though they frequently borrowed from American and British pop tunes and movie themes. (Indeed, a growing number of Kingston musicians were adopting Rastafarianism and were thus less likely to adopt foreign pop wholesale.) Also, Toots and the Maytals, Prince Buster, Shenley Duffus, and others sang with more distinctive accents — examples of this include the Maytals' "Broadway Jungle" and Duffus' cover of "Rukumbine," recorded in 1965 on the Island label. (Though great tunes, both are virtually unintelligible to American ears.) Ska lyrics in this harder, more "African" strain were either loaded with sexual references; for example, Eric Morris' "Penny Reel" and Justin Hines' "Rub Up Push Up" have men openly propositioning women and are full of allusions to sex. Sometimes, though, ska tunes were pointedly political; the Charms' (actually the Maytals') "Carry Go Bring Come" attacks the wife of repressive Jamaican prime minister Lord Bustamante, while Lord Brynner and the Sheiks' "Congo War" comments about the turmoil in the Congo (though it makes fun of its figures' comical names rather than promoting black nationalism). (The Skatalites. From http://thetracksofmytears.wordpress.com — dead link)
Though immensely popular within Jamaica and among Jamaicans living abroad (mainly in Britain, Canada, and the United States), ska failed to catch on with a broader audience elsewhere. The music was in fact performed at the Jamaican pavilion at 1964's World's Fair in New York; here, the teenaged Jimmy Cliff demonstrated ska dance steps, and other artists tried (at Edward Seaga's urging) to promote the Jamaican sound, but to little avail. No "world music" market then existed (and would not be significant until well after 1970), and the only headway ska made internationally in the 1960s was Millie Small's hit single, "My Boy Lollipop." Recorded in Britain in 1964, the song was more pop-oriented than most Island Records fare but featured the characteristic shuffling beat and Small's shrill voice (common among female ska singers).
ROCKSTEADY: THE NEW JAMAICAN SOUL, 1966-68
The year 1966 greatly changed Jamaican music as the rocksteady style appeared. Some have cited this as the transition from American-derived ska to native Jamaican reggae, though this is not entirely accurate. In truth, Jamaican music continued to be influenced by American soul and British pop, which by the mid-1960s was smoother, slower, and more melodic — the widely popular Motown style and thhe lush Philadelphia soul sound are examples. Jamaican musicians responded to this with their own slower, more laid-back sound, dubbed "rocksteady" for its smoothness and mellower rhythms. A few accounts claim that the intense summer heat of 1966 caused Jamaican musicians to slow down their tempos; this seems less likely than the fact that American soul was itself growing mellower and more laid-back. Though the rough, raw ska sound stayed popular (and would not fade until 1967), another strain of Jamaican pop had developed which ultimately had more influence both within Jamaica and internationally.
Rocksteady not only slowed down the tempos, but it shifted the emphasis from horns to guitar and vocals. The jumpy, syncopated beat became less pronounced and more lilting, and the resulting sound is a more relaxed version of American soul. Three prime examples of the new sound are Delroy Wilson's "Dancing Mood," The Gaylads' "Stop Making Love," and, more importantly, Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" and "007 (Shanty Town)." All these tunes, as well as others in the rocksteady style, bear much more resemblance to American soul and gospel than to the earthy, rollicking New Orleans-derived ska sound, which by 1966 was fading as a common musical idiom. Still, Jamaican artists kept responding to American and European pop and continued to adapt it to their own well-developed traditions and ideas about music. A less directly derivative style would soon emerge, one which seemed to turn its back on Euro-American influences and aimed to root Jamaicans and their music back in Africa. (The Maytals, 1965. From http://reggaediscography.blogspot.com)
By 1968, though, both ska and rocksteady were supplanted by a new, more enduring style — reggae, supposedly named for the Maytals' 1968 recording "Do the Reggay." Some music writers erroneously claim that ska and rocksteady turned into reggae; actually, reggae is a separate strain of music. Ska's beat shuffles, while reggae's rhythms are slower, more lilting, and more marked by percussion (similar to Count Ossie's burru drumming on "Oh! Carolina"). Also, it is more vocal-oriented, meant more for listening than for dancing, and its lyrics are much more political than those of either ska or rocksteady. More importantly, reggae represents a new sense of blackness — much like that of black nationalist movements throughout the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reggae drew heavily from the Rastafarian creed, which worships former Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie (born Ras Tafari) as the savior and rejects the New World as "Babylon." The new genre, which had a well-developed ideology that first-wave ska lacked, marked a rethinking of Jamaican music's relationship with American pop (though today reggae borrows from rap and hip-hop, both urban and American in origin).
CONCLUSION: DECLINE AND REVIVAL
After the rise of reggae (and its popularization by Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, and others), ska was virtually forgotten. In the late 1970s, punk-influenced British groups like the Specials, the Selecter, the English Beat, Bad Manners, and others fused punk's energy with ska's rollicking danceability, giving rise to a second wave. This was followed in the 1990s by bands like No Doubt, Rancid, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. However, these later phases are more rock than ska, adding a punk tempo and outlook that the original never had. While now largely co-opted by rock, ska began as something apart from mainstream '60s rock 'n' roll and continues to be an interesting genre of African-based music in the New World.
The Attempted Ska Page: loads of links, 'zines, band info, etc. Online since 1994 — stop by!
Ernie B’s Reggae: A shopping site with a wide array of ska, rocksteady, and reggae discs for sale.
Green Party USA: By far the most socially and ecologically responsible folks in politics.
Jammin Reggae Archives: Reggae information, a great weekly show, and much more. Big ups to Mike!
Mento Music: A detailed, humorous look at mento, one of ska’s chief influences. Thanks to Mike for the link and photo.
The Quicksteps: A well-established German ska band’s site. Keep skankin’, Dirk!
Reggae Fusion: A huge, well-assembled reference site covering all aspects of Jamaican music.
Rocket Ship Ska Trip An excellent weekly show on KFAI in Minneapolis (QuickTime or RealPlayer required).
Ska Jerk: A broad history of ska through the present day, with audio and an extensive playlist.
Skaville: A very useful German site listing Jamaican covers of US and UK originals.
L'African Jazz, Merveilles du Passe (African) 1950s Congolese rhumba — not ska, but worth your time.
Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dread Beat and Blood (Heartbeat/Virgin) The greatest dub poet ever.
Prince Buster, FABulous Greatest Hits (Sequel) The definitive Prince Buster collection.
Steve Barrow et al, The Rough Guide to Reggae (1997)
Stephen Davis, Bob Marley (1985)
Stephen Davis and Peter Simon, Reggae Bloodlines (1977)
Dick Hebdige, Cut 'n' Mix (1987)
Dick Hebdige, Subculture (1979)
Simon Jones, Black Culture, White Youth (1988)
Amon Saba Saakana, Jah Music (1980)
Timothy White, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (1989)
Online since 1998. Comments? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org — no flames, please!