Ska Music Skanks On

Joel Bergstein

Arms flailing, legs erratically bouncing off the ground, I fell violently fell to the floor. Despite what many might identify as some sort of epileptic seizure I, as well as my fellow concert goers, were skanking. While none of us thought for a second about it, the dance we were doing and the music we were listening to was not so different from its origins over 50 years ago.

Ska is more than just an oddly perfect combination of brass wind and rocking guitar riffs. It’s a musical fusion of two genres: jazz and mento. Mento itself is a combination of musical genres, combing African and European influences. Mento became popular in Jamaica in the early 40’s, and with American Rock ‘n’ Roll on the rise in the 50’s, Jamaicans looked to create their own musical genre that they could relate and dance too. Mento slowly evolved, and with a combination of jazz brass influence, ska was born. The name is believed to have originated during an Ernest Ranglin jam session when the guitar was characterized as sounding like “Ska! Ska! Ska!”

By the early 60’s, ska had become a smash sensation in Jamaica. Prince Buster, one of the entrepreneurs who helped give birth to ska, and other representatives came over to America in 1964 to the World’s Fair where ska was introduced as the national music of Jamaica. Additionally, dancers Ronnie Nasralla and Jannette Phillips introduced the world to the “Backy Skank” and the “Rootsman Skank”, now known more commonly as skanking. Dancing to ska was further developed by rude boys, Jamaican youths often chronicled in early ska music. Their erratic movements were centered on pumping the arms, which in turn influenced the development of the ska sound, resulting in a pulsating bass line rather than the earlier laid back bass sound.

Later, when ska made its way to England, it soon merged with the punk rock sound, creating the second wave of ska known as 2 Tone. The name was derived from 2 Tone Records, a record label started by Jerry Dammers. Dammers was a member of The Specials, one of the more influential bands of the 2 Tone era. Other well-known bands of the second ska wave are Madness, the Selecter, and the Beat. One of the major themes of 2 Tone era music was a message of racial unity, which was demonstrated on the highest level with bands like the Beat boasting a multicultural lineup.

More prominent artists of the time also had their hands in the 2 Tone era. The Police have been known to skank during the era, as evident in some of their earlier work. Elvis Costello also released one song under the 2 Tone label, and also produced the first Specials album.

In the 1980s the 2 Tone music made its way to the United States, at which point the modern era of ska was born. Known only as the Third Wave, the modern ska era has given birth to the modern ska bands and songs we have come to know and love. Third Wave Ska is a fusion of the original Jamaican Ska, 2 Tone, and punk rock. While the first well known Third Wave band was The Toasters, the mainstream success came when “Someday I Suppose” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones appeared in the film Clueless. Followed by their smash single “The Impression That I Get,” Third Wave Ska had officially exploded on the scene. Bands started to pop up with overwhelming success. No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs” helped to earn the band two Grammy nominations and bring ska even broader exposure. Today, many ska bands blur the lines of punk, rock, and ska. Other bands such as Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, and Catch 22 continue to carry on the Jamaican ska rhythm, even if it has evolved greatly from its original sound.

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