Music Monday: What is Ska?

By Eddie Echeverria

“What is that?”

That’s the question I get every time I invoke the name of my first true musical love: Ska. The easiest way to answer is to call it a blend of reggae, jazz and punk. But every time I give that answer I feel a small part of my soul die. I may as well describe a Monet as just a smattering of colors on a canvas. Such an explanation is neither tailored nor full enough to adequately communicate the nuanced beauty of ska in all its wondrous forms.

Ska originated in Jamaica during the 1950s as the lovechild of American-influenced R&B, jazz and the local sound. Defined by its emphasis on upbeats, signature guitar riffs (affectionately referred to as the skanking beat) and love of brass, it spread fairly quickly among the Jamaican underclass before reaching the shores of Western nations like the United Kingdom and United States. There is actually a lot of interesting stuff to be read on the socio-political role of ska and reggae in Jamaica, but that’s not why you’re here today: you’re here for some sick tunes.

Like feminism, nausea and the ocean, ska comes in waves. The first wave emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Skartists like Prince Buster and Desmond Decker meshed well with much of the then-budding rock and roll genre, offering a new take on some old styles. Unfortunately, all of these songs basically sound the same. So, I have left only two in the playlist for you. Such a waste.

The second wave, known as the Two-Tone era, began in the 70s and cemented ska as a distinct genre. The most influential group in this period was the Specials, a group whose sound was undeniably unique. This wave saw the sharpening of the upbeat rhythm, as well as the introduction of funky bass lines, a development which has shaped all other ska since.

Largely identified by the marriage of ska and other mainstream sounds, specifically punk, the third wave has been the most successful. Punk brought to ska a fuller sound, transitioning from only simple skanking riffs to power chords and stronger brass sections. Bands like Streetlight Manifesto and Reel Big Fish have seen a lot of commercial success with their ska-infused punk styles. No Doubt, fronted by Gwen Stefani, was also big in the ska scene in the early 90’s. Perhaps my favorite of the bunch, if by nostalgia only, is the Aquabats with Save Ferris and Buck-o-Nine close at its heels. They maintain a more peppy sound and seldom fail to make any day just a little bit happier.

Christian ska, a sub-genre of ska proper, began to pop up in the mid-90s. The most well-known group would be the O.C. Supertones. The Supertones may well be the most impressive and diverse group in sound, though not in content, in this playlist and as such have earned three spots. Five Iron Frenzy also deserves some recognition for some great bass work and a vocalist who moonlights as a yodeler (true story), a must for any Bible-toting rude-boy.

The ska sound has been just as, if not more, successful overseas. Russkaja, a Russian band from Austria which identifies as “turbo polka metal,” bears a distinctively ska style. Sondaschule, a German Ska band, offers a more chill vibe than is often heard. And of course, we cannot forget “J-Ska” or Japanese ska. The Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra plays robust, classic ska and has no problem drawing a crowd (see YouTube).

From the beginning of the 1980’s through the present day, Ska has also influenced a great deal of mainstream music. Artists like The Police, The Clash and Blondie have embraced the ska groove at various points in their careers. A major element of ska culture is the world of covers. If you cannot find a ska cover for a song, then you aren’t looking hard enough. In order to adequately demonstrate this reality, I have included a small assortment of ska covers.

If you listen to a couple of these tunes and think about quitting, I would advise that you at least hold out to Reel Big Fish’s cover of “Take On Me.” It will be worth your time. If you get through that, “My Town” by Buck-o-Nine and all of these puns without at least a skappreciation for the genre, then kudos; you can go back to your Miley Cyrus (who had some early stuff that was definitely ska-esque) and Bruno Mars (see “Doo-Wops” and “Hooligans”), but don’t think you can escape it. Ska is everywhere. And it is simply skamazing.

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The Cardinal & Cream is a student publication of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Our staff ranges from freshmen to seniors and includes a variety of majors — including journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing, digital media studies, graphic design and art majors.