Project Description

SKA! SKA! SKA!

Ska – coined from the sound made by the chopping rhythm guitar – was the first outpouring of home-grown Jamaican creativity to come to the attention of the musical world. Ska’s mixture of ingredients reflect Jamaica’s rich musical heritage: mento and quadrille from the island itself; the US jump blues and R & B that dominated the Jamaican dancehalls and lawns of the 1950s latin; the arrangements of be-bop jazz. Two catalysts were at work in the birth of Ska.

Firstly, the gradual drying up of driving bass-heavy R & B records and recordings from the US encouraged local musicians such as Aubrey Adams, Rico Rodriguez and Clue J & His Blues Blasters to try their hand at replicating it using the emerging Kingston recording industry. Secondly, independence in August 1962 from British colonial rule unleashed a wave of national pride, energy, optimism and creativity, thus Lord Creator’s Independent Jamaica, Forward March by Derrick Morgan, and Miss Jamaica from future superstar Jimmy Cliff.

Beneath the energetic surface of Ska the factors which put Jamaican music on the map and kept it there in the decades to come are all at work. Firstly, 50s sound system operators like Coxsone Dodd, King Edwards, Prince Buster and Duke Reid turned record producer, their ear always close to the demands of dancehall patrons.

Secondly a galaxy of worldly musicians who could hold their own in any genre had been nurtured through military and police bands, hotel and cruise ship big bands, and the world-renowned Alpha Boys School.

Thirdly, singing talent inspired by the likes of Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield took their chances at hugely popular talent nights run by the likes of Vere Johns.

Finally, the quality of the Federal, and later Dynamic, recording studios built by the unlikeliest figure of the time, an Australian recording engineer called Graeme Goodall, drawn to Jamaica to set up the RJR radio station, for producer Ken Khouri.

While highly danceable records like the irrepressible My Boy Lollipop by Millie (a cover of Barbie Gales US R & B jumper) remain the public face of Ska, dig a little deeper and the depth and range of the influences that made Ska are there. An instructive showcase is The Skatalites’ Ska-Boo-Da-Ba (Sounds From The Top Deck) LP.

The part played by the Jamaican diaspora, particularly in the UK, was crucial to the spread of Ska with label owners like Chris Blackwell (Island), Rita & Benny King (R & B) and Emil Shalit (Blue Beat) releasing the tunes to the delight of the young West Indian men and women arriving in the UK in 50s and 60s. I would often hear my parents and their friends refer to “Blue Beat” and I always associate ska with this label.

It takes me back to the weddings, christenings and parties my family were invited to in the mid-60s, with my Mum making shiny dresses with a “can can” and frills for my sister and I to wear at these occasions. One ska tune that was always and still is played today is “Jamaica Ska by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires – Jamaica Ska, together with the dance that went with it.

“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

STEVE WAX - Deptford Dub Club, Deptford