The Sound of Ska

English: Ernest Ranglin performing at WOMAD, U...

English: Ernest Ranglin performing at WOMAD, UK, 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something so definitive about certain styles of music. You hear a walking bass line, where the bassist plays a changing melodic pattern while still playing evenly on every beat in 4/4 time and it might evoke Jazz, Jump Blues, or Rockabilly. The tempo, or speed that the song is played, could change quite a bit and it would still be recognizable in that style. But once you change one element it sounds like the Islands. If the guitarist, or pianist plays chords on the “Ands” of the beats in a 4/4 measure you get the characteristic sound of Ska. You have the bassist hitting every down beat and the guitarist hits every upbeat and you get this crazy, compelling, joyful, dance music.

Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin says that musicians created the word Ska “to talk about that skat! skat! skat! scratching’ guitar that goes behind.” He is talking about offbeats. Now, those of you who know me know that this is also the name of the band I have played in for decades but as they said in the movie Airplane “That’s not important now.”

An offbeat is another way to describe the upbeat, or “And”,  in a 4/4 measure. One story I mention in my book is that a Jamaican producer, Prince Buster asked his guitarist Jah Jerry, (who played with what is probably the most influential and oldest Ska band “The Skatalites”) to emphasize the “afterbeat”. This is a different term for the same part of the beat – the “And”. This constant pulse of chords on the offbeats changed everything.

Here is what the guitar rhythm looks like:


The count is:                    1      and      2      and     3      and     4       and

So where did Ska come from? During WWII American service men stationed in Jamaica brought big band Jazz/Swing to the Island. Radio music from New Orleans brought the sounds of New Orleans Second Line Jazz, early Rock and R&B into the air in Jamaica. This mixed with Mento, a type of Jamaican folk music and Ska was born.

Initially Ska was optimistic and enthusiastic, reflecting the positive feeling of new Jamaican self- government in 1962 but the mood darkened as the culture changed, the tempo slowed and Ska morphed into Rock Steady which later became Reggae.

Many people who know about Ska probably think of Second Wave Ska. This is a distinctive evolution of traditional or First Wave Ska in several ways.  As Jamaicans emigrated to the UK, Ska clubs appeared in the cities of Blackburn, Lancashire and Margate where they settled. Jamaican musicians began playing with English musicians and this gave this music the name of “Two Tone” Ska. Bands such as the English Beat, Bad Manners, and Madness toured the world in the 80’s. One big difference with this from traditional Ska was the “Four on the Floor” bass drum, where the drummer joins the bassist in emphasizing each quarter note beat. There is also a much younger and almost “Punk” quality in some of the Two Tone bands both in their age, playing, and maturity.  (For example, the lead singer of Bad Manners, Buster Bloodvessel, used to constantly scream at the crowd, invoking  them to yell “You Fat Bastard” at him and he would pour buckets of water back at them.) Less mean spirited than Punk with it’s razor blades and safety pin piercings but still quite lively with a slightly dangerous feeling.

Buster Bloodvessel in 2007 at the Dundee Doghouse

Buster Bloodvessel in 2007 at the Dundee Doghouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sound crossed back across the globe again as bands such as The Police, who used a lot of Caribbean elements in their compositions, toured in the US. I would not say the Police were exactly a Ska band but the influence was there. Listen to “Roxanne”, their huge first single, with  that Skat Skat Skat guitar.

This is what keeps all of us, musicians and fans alike, alive and interested. The continuous inventing and re-inventing of the same basic chords, scales, notes, and rhythms. Ya just mix em up and ya get this new music……. So, what the heck do we want to call it ?  It’s brand new.  How about Ska? No. That’s been taken.

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  1. Pingback: A Very Brief History of Ska and Reggae Music | Sharp and Pointed

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