The Last Train to Ska

Written by Andrew Calderbank
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I can’t say for certain when I developed my love of Ska music. There was no defining moment when I heard “Willow Tree” by Alton Ellis and my world was turned on its head. My coming of age was in the dark and distant nineties, a world of MDMA fuelled warehouse parties and the guitar bands of Manchester.
But for me it was always about Punk and Mod. And I always preferred a Harrington jacket and Fred Perry polo shirt to a baggy t-shirt and a Reni hat. And music’s like a treasure trail, always leading you someplace else. And from The Jam, Pistols and The Clash, I moved on to the Two-Tone scene that exploded a decade before I left school. The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter becoming my bands of choice. And with the obsessive nature of the lifelong stamp collector, when it comes to music at least, I’ve always needed to the know the roots of whichever music has touched my soul and put a beat in my step. And Two Tone, this multi-cultural music from the concrete jungles of post-industrial eighties Britain, originated in the Ska music of faraway Jamaica.

So, what exactly is Ska? According to Collins Dictionary Ska is a type of West Indian pop music of the 1960s, accented on the second and fourth beats of a four-beat bar.’ Of course, it is much more than that. The roots of Ska are deeply rooted in the history of that big, little island that lies just ninety miles of the coast of America. A nation largely built by West African slaves and indentured labourers from Europe, India and China. And colonial policy meant that African slaves were systematically separated from their tribal brothers and stripped of their culture and identities. And while some West African influences survived, Black Jamaicans needed to create their own identity and culture from scratch, and music was how it was and is expressed.

The 1950’s saw the emergence of the sound system on the streets of downtown Kingston, a heady mix of American Rhythm and Blues, dancing, cold beer and goat curry. An opportunity for poor Jamaicans to celebrate and often escape their lives, the beats of the music in sync with the collective heartbeat of the downtrodden. And as Princess Margaret and her coterie of rich socialites basked in the Caribbean sun, the jazz musicians of swanky coastal hotels played their own peculiar take on Rhythm and Blues. And while they failed to replicate the sound of Fats Domino their own sound emerged, and this was Ska. And it was Prince Buster, later to be idolised by British skinheads, who emerged as one of the stars of the scene with the wonderful “oh Carolina”.

And when Ska first emerged, Jamaica had gained independence from mother Britain. The optimism, albeit short-lived, reflected in the fresh new sounds emanating from the sound systems of Duke Reid and the gun-toting Clement Coxsone Dodd, providing the Jamaican populace with an evolving soundtrack for a young nation getting to grips with controlling its own destiny. Duke Reid and Clement Coxsone Dodd, of course, would go on to establish their own records labels as the Jamaica people gained their own musical independence, the vinyl imports of Americana replaced with an explosion of homegrown records that were truly theirs. Prince Buster, The Skatalites, Alton Ellis, Derrick Morgan and Laurel Aitkin, to name just a few helping to define an era and a time in history and making some bloody lovely records along the way. Listen to Derrick Morgan’s “Forward March” and The Skatalites “Freedom Sound” and get a feel of the newly found freedom that defined early sixties Jamaica.

Nothing good lasts forever and the celebration and optimism waned under an undercurrent of economic problems and political corruption. Poor Jamaicans still gravitated to Kingston looking for work and a step up the ladder. And when the job market became saturated and unemployment started to rocket, Kingston witnessed the rise of gang culture and the emergence of the Rude Boy. The Rude Boys with their sharp blades and even sharper attire. And as the Caribbean skies remained blue, the heart and soul of the small island grew darker. The streets of Kingston, bustling by day with market stalls and street traders, made way to the rude boy gangs carving up street turfs and sometimes each other by night. Sound system battles and the law of the ratchet. Listen to “I’m the Toughest” by Peter Tosh and “Tougher Than Tough” by Derrick Morgan encapsulating the gangster life a good two decades before the emergence of America’s own tough street sound, Hip Hop. And Derrick Morgan wrote, “Tougher Than Tough” in the honour of a violent rude boy who demanded a song in his honour, and luckily for Morgan was suitably impressed by the result. The rudeboy, however, was less lucky, he was murdered the very next day.

Ska was soon to spread its wings far from its insular roots as the soundtrack of Jamaica’s downtrodden and dispossessed, but not by design. Ska didn’t have a Motown, Stax or Atlantic, and ensembles of slick marketing men and tour managers pathologically driven to world domination. It was the Caribbean migration of the fifties and sixties that really spread the faith, as young men and women packed up their belongings and culture and headed across the pond to dear old Blighty. The old colonial newcomers faced a hostile welcome as Enoch Powell’s “river of blood speech” rubbed shoulders awkwardly with the fashionable liberalism of swinging London. But in the bawdy parish of Soho, the longtime playground of the marginalised, Ska found a home. Soho, the home of vagrants, criminals, prostitutes, artists, musicians, radical activists, and anybody else unwilling or unable to be confined by the constraints of a rigid class system.

Soho’s most famous thoroughfare, Carnaby Street, the epicentre of British modernist culture was the locale of the legendary Count Suckles residency at the infamous Roaring Twenties, wherein a nation of eleven o clock closing times, black and white skanked until daybreak. It was in these hedonistic environs that Ska seeped into the consciousness of mod enthusiasts and musicians already well-schooled in the soul, blues and R&B of the American south.

Away from the decadence of Soho, the blues dances and shebeens became the dimly lit sanctuaries of the West Indian immigrants wanting a little slice of the Caribbean amongst the factories and terraced houses of Britain’s inner cities. The tough Ska sounds organically reaching out through the schoolyards, youth clubs and factories to white, working-class Mods.

And music, like everything else in life, never stands still. By the mid-sixties, the high tempo dance music of Ska evolved into the cooler, calmer vibes of Rocksteady, as Kingston’s musical fraternity drew their collective breath. Lyrical matter reverted to boy meets girl love songs to cool the undercurrent of violence that bubbled away in the street dances of Trenchtown.

And its difficult to say why this roots music captured the hearts of working-class kids from London to Leeds and still resonates in the here and now of 2018. But like all good music, it touches something in the heart and soul. Music, if you love it that is, should mean everything and nothing. Every emotion from the first flush of love to the pain of rejection and unrequited love can be found in the plethora of records that emanated from that heady period in history. Human emotion crosses continents and music follows. Its why kids in LA and Tokyo don Fred Perry and Sta Press trousers and skank to a music that’s approaching its sixtieth birthday. But more than that, Ska and Rocksteady provided a running commentary to the social history of sixties Jamaica, a country of contradictions. From sunshine and golden beaches to political instability, poverty and gang violence.

And Ska and Rocksteady have continued to evolve from each passing generation, mixing and mashing with other styles and genres. From the Two Tone of post-industrial West Midlands to the third generation Ska Punk of Southern California. And its now 2018, and its unlikely that the popular culture will ever witness a Ska movement as consuming, relevant and vibrant as that which emerged like a hurricane from sixties Kingston or seventies, Coventry. But it doesn’t matter, things move on and so they should. The attitude of Ska lives on in the multicultural grandchildren of the early mods and first generation immigrants, the Grime scene providing a modern, urban soundtrack against a backdrop of political division and of austerity cuts, while the Windrush scandal provides echoes of a dark and not too and distant past.

Read 4245 times Last modified on Monday, 21 January 2019 15:31
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Andrew Calderbank

Andrew Calderbank

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