Ska Music

Ska is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s and was the precursor to rocksteady and reggae. Ska combined elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues. It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the off-beat. Ska developed in Jamaica in the 1960s when Prince Buster, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, and Duke Reid formed sound systems to play American rhythm and blues and then began recording their own songs. Some suggest ska dates to earlier times, however. In the early 1960s, ska was the dominant music genre of Jamaica and was popular with British mods. Later it became popular with many skinheads. Music historians typically divide the history of ska into three periods: the original Jamaican scene of the 1960s; the 2 Tone ska revival of the late 1970s in Britain, which fused Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with the faster tempos and harder edge of punk rock; and the third wave of ska, which involved bands from the UK, other European countries (notably Germany), Australia, Japan, South America and the United States, beginning in the 1980s and peaking in the 1990s.

There are multiple theories about the origins of the word ska. Ernest Ranglin claimed that the term was coined by musicians to refer to the “skat! skat! skat!” scratching guitar strum. Ranglin asserted that the difference between R&B and ska beats is that the former goes “chink-ka” and the latter goes “ka-chink“. Another explanation is that at a recording session in 1959 produced by Coxsone Dodd, double bassist Cluett Johnson instructed guitarist Ranglin to “play like ska, ska, ska”, although Ranglin has denied this, stating “Clue couldn’t tell me what to play!” A further theory is that it derives from Johnson’s word skavoovie, with which he was known to greet his friends. Jackie Mittoo insisted that the musicians called the rhythm Staya Staya, and that it was Byron Lee who introduced the term “ska”. Derrick Morgan said: “Guitar and piano making a ska sound, like ‘ska, ska,”

The first ska recordings were created at facilities such as Studio One and WIRL Records in Kingston, Jamaica with producers such as Dodd, Reid, Prince Buster, and Edward Seaga. The ska sound coincided with the celebratory feelings surrounding Jamaica’s independence from the UK in 1962; an event commemorated by songs such as Derrick Morgan’s “Forward March” and The Skatalites’ “Freedom Sound”.

Until Jamaica ratified the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the country didn’t honor international music copyright protection. This created a large number of cover songs and reinterpretations. One such cover was Millie Small’s version of the R&B/shuffle tune, “My Boy Lollypop” first recorded in New York in 1956 by 14 year old Barbie Gaye. Smalls’ rhythmically similar version, released in 1964, was Jamaica’s first commercially successful international hit. With over seven million copies sold, it remains one of the best selling reggae/ska songs of all time. Many other Jamaican artists would have success recording instrumental ska versions of popular American and British music, such as Beatles songs, Motown and Atlantic soul hits, movie theme songs and surf rock instrumentals. The Wailers covered The Beatles’ “And I Love Her”, and radically reinterpreted Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. They also created their own versions of Latin-influenced music from artists such as Mongo Santamaria.