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Exploring the Unique and Rich History of Ska Music

Rohini Mohan May 12, 2019
Moving and progressing in waves, each era of ska has continually surprised its listeners with its transformed sounds and approach to the genre. According to ska legend Derrick Morgan, the term 'ska' is said to have come about because of the sound that the guitar made when played along with the piano.

Did You Know?

The term 2 (Two) Tone was coined by Jerry Dammers, the keyboardist of the English band 'The Specials'. Jerry along with Horace Panter and John 'Teflon' Sims designed the iconic 2-tone man 'Walt Jabsco' logo. Jamaican ska and reggae musician, Peter Tosh was the inspiration behind this logo.
The music genre of Ska originated in Jamaica during the late 1950s. It rose in popularity because its sound was heavily influenced by a diverse range of musical genres such as Jamaican mento and Caribbean folk styles such as calypso, American Soul, rhythm and blues (R&B), and swing.
Since mento, a Jamaican folk music style, greatly shaped the sound of ska and reggae music, it can be called the base or foundation of Ska. This genre has been said to have evolved in 3 phases/waves during which time, the popularity of ska rose, and its sound changed dramatically. Here we discusses the history of ska music and its waves through the years.


Ska music is upbeat and follows a 4/4 time progression, wherein the drumbeat focuses mainly on the 2nd and 4th beats, whereas the guitar dominates the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th beats in the bar.

Ska Music History

Jamaicans began to have increased access to radios post World War II and thus, were introduced to Caribbean calypso, steelpan and soca music from Trinidad and Tobago, and more American styles of music such as R&B and jazz.
Popular American music was broadcasted further by prominent Jamaican radio stations such as Radio Jamaica and Rediffusion (RJR) and the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) during the late 1950s.
The New Orleans and Miami radio stations made it possible for Jamaicans to listen to legendary musicians such as Champion Jack Dupree, Fats Domino, Amos Milburn, Jelly Roll Morton, Rosco Gordon, Professor Longhair, and Louis Jordan.
In fact, ska innovator Prince Buster claims that the 1951 song 'Later for the Gator' (by American jazz saxophonist Willis Jackson) was the one that created ska.

First Wave - Ska (1960s)

By 1956, Jamaicans had come up with an interesting concoction which they called ska because of the 'Slak' sound that the guitar strums made on being scratched. In 1960, the first ever ska song Oh Carolina was recorded by the Jamaican group Folkes Brothers and produced by Prince Buster.
This song was recorded in WIRL Records in Kingston, which was soon to become the hub of ska music. The sound of ska was said to be more upbeat and faster than its predecessors because the sentiments of independence and rebellion were more pronounced.
This is because by 1960, Jamaica was gradually asserting its freedom from the UK and succeeded in doing so two years later. Jamaican independence day was celebrated with ska songs such as Forward March sung by Derrick Morgan and the very popular song Freedom Sound by the soon-to-be world-famous band The Skatalites.
One of the things that furthered the spread of ska music largely was how The Skatalites managed to convert almost every popular song into ska by recording plain instrumental versions of songs by The Beatles and soul and movie theme songs. Their original compositions such as Guns of Navarone made them hugely popular in their home country as well as abroad.
Other prominent bands were doing ska covers and making their own songs during this period. Bob Marley and the Wailers, simply The Wailer's rendition of the song And I Love Her by The Beatles and Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan became world hits, still replayed today.
These covers and the inspiring voice of Bob Marley ensured that Jamaica found a respectable place in the world music map.
Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Toots and the Maytals, Higgs & Wilson, The Melodians, The Clarendonians, The Blues Busters, Clue J & His Blues Blasters, The Paragons, The Silvertones, and Symarip were some of the other successful Jamaican ska bands that were actively performing during the first wave of ska in the 1960s.
The various cover versions of these songs and several other ska songs ensure that the genre spread across the world like wildfire.

Second Wave - 2 Tone (1970s)

The second wave of ska took place in England during the late 1970s. Known as 2 (Two) Tone, this ska genre included musical influences from other musical genres such as rocksteady, reggae, punk rock, and new wave. This new variant of ska was created in Coventry, England, where the influence of Jamaican music and anti-racism sentiments were high.
This was also the time when 'Rock Against Racism', a popular music movement, began in 1976 in the United Kingdom. This movement was founded by the notable British photographers Red Saunders and Roger Huddle in response to the racist remarks being made by famous British rock musicians such as Eric Clapton and David Bowie.
The band 'Madness' (1976) was perhaps the first 2-Tone ska revival band to have gained public recognition for its music and seven member lineup. It went on to become one of the most successful ska bands in Britain with 15 UK top ten singles and famous songs such as The Prince and One Step Beyond (1979), House of Fun (1982), and Wings of a Dove (1983).
Another 2-Tone ska revival band that gained immense success was 'The Specials', which formed in 1977. Their lyrics stood out from the rest because they were more political and anti-racist in nature; all the while being upbeat and danceable.
They became iconic for their 1960s' rude boy fashion, stage presence, and lyrics about unemployment and unhappiness with the system. Some examples of ska music that rose 'The Specials' to fame include Gangsters (1979), A Message To You, Rudy cover of the song by Dandy Livingstone (1979), Too Much Too Young and Rat Race (1980), and Ghost Town (1981).
Some other 2-Tone bands that came during the same time were The Beat (1978), UB40 (1978), The Selecter (1979), and The Body snatchers (1979). Stiff Records, 2 Tone Records, and Go Feet Records were the top three English record labels that signed 2-Tone and ska revivals bands.

Third Wave - Ska-punk (1980s - Present)

The late 1980s once again witnessed the emergence of ska bands such as The Burial, The Hotknives, and Potato 5 whose music had distinct ska, 2-Tone, rocksteady, and punk rock musical influences. This period also saw the resurgence of trads/trojan/traditional skinheads who associated with the British skinhead working class subculture of the 1960s.
British youth in the late 1980s were once again seen with close-cropped and shaved heads, and were influenced by the rude boys of Jamaica and British mods (modernists). These skinheads would listen to music composed and performed by black people and wished to be associated as non-political and non-racists.
Ska experienced a major surge in popularity in Europe where countries like Germany had the most number of notable ska-punk bands like Skaos (1982), Blechreiz (1983) and The Busters (1987), actively present and continue to perform throughout the world. Mr. Review (a.k.a. Rude & Visser) is a revered ska revival band from Amsterdam, active since 1983.
Mark Foggo's Skasters (1987) also contributed in the development of ska and upcoming band in Europe such as the French band, Skarface.
The Australians developed their own ska scene during the mid-1980s, with the band 'The Jumpers' starting this music movement in 1979.
Other notable bands to introduce ska to Australia were the bands The Letters (1979), The Allniters (1980), Strange Tenants (1981), No Nonsense (1984) and The Porkers (1987), Area 7 (1994), Sounds Like Chicken (1999), and Loin Groin, The Resignators, and The Mouldy Lovers (2010).
United States
Ska bands had come up all over the United States in the 1980s and spread to South America by mid-1980s. One of the first American ska bands that gained repute during the late 1970s were Fishbone (1979), The Uptones (1981)―who set the ska scene in California, and The Toasters (1981) who established themselves in New York City.
The Toasters celebrated their 30th Anniversary with a world tour in 2011 and are the longest-running ska band in the U.S. Simultaneously, the Los Angeles ska band The Untouchables was formed, whose lead vocalist Kevin Long described the band's music as "mods who played ska music."
The Bosstones (1983) and Operation Ivy (1987) brought more radical fusion of ska and punk rock, establishing the subgenre of ska-punk. New-age ska-punk bands, Let's Go Bowling (1986), No Doubt (1986), Sublime (1986 ), Skankin' Pickle (1989), Dance Hall Crashers (1989), Hepcat (1989), Reel Big Fish (1991) got popular for their musicality at home and globally.
During this period, the record label Moon Ska Records (1983) founded by Robert "Bucket" Hingley from the band 'The Toasters' went on to become one of the largest labels dedicated to ska in the U.S. However, the record label became defunct in 2000 and was replaced with Megalith Records by the same owner.
The movement moved to Canada during the late 1980s and early 1990s as well, which resulted in ska bands such as King Apparatus (1987), The Planet Smashers (1991), and The Kingpins (1994).
In South America, the ska band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (1983) blended ska music with traditional music to form one of the most internationally recognized bands from Argentina. They also went on to win a Grammy in 1994 for Best Latin Rock/Alternative album.
Japan - J-ska
Japanese or J-ska is a concoction of J-pop, punk, and ska-pop, which began as an offshoot of the third wave of ska during the 1980s. It also derives much of its inspiration from the Jamaican ska and reggae scene of the 1960s, which the musicians emulate in their native language.
J-ska is very noticeable for its fervid vocals, peppy guitar rhythms, and the use of instruments such as the trombone, trumpet, saxophone, and drum and bass.
Among the several ska bands that continue to perform and form every year, some notable ones include Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (TSPO) (1985), The Boom (1986), Elizabeth Sakura Narita (1997), Mongol800 (1998), Dallax (1998), MidnightPumpkin (2002), and OreSkaBand (2003), etc., to name a few.
✦ Christian Ska
While ska became a global phenomenon, it continued to make an appearance in gospel and Christian music, much like how it began in Kingston, Jamaica.
Christian ska bands began to emerge in a big way during the early 2000s and include Buck Enterprises (1994), The O. C. Supertones (1995), The Insyderz (1996), and Five Iron Frenzy (1995), The O.C. Supertones (1995), The Dingees (1996), and Squad Five-O (1997).
Perhaps, there shall be a fourth wave of ska where we may hear a combination of EDM, dubstep, and ska, which may sound interesting enough to sustain for a few more decades to come.
Until then, all you ska fans can listen and replay the tracks of legends such as Derrick Morgan, Ernest Ranglin, Prince Buster, and the new-age musicians and bands that have sustained the unique and rich history and sound of ska.