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What is Ska Music?

Do you love Jamaican sounds from the 60s, dance beats from the 1970s UK movement, and also happen to have a liking for the ferocious Punk of the American 90s? Well then, Ska music is probably some of your favorite earcandy.

If you haven’t heard of Ska music but happen to love the three above-mentioned genres, then you’re in for a treat. Believe it or not, there’s a genre that combines these three sounds.

Amazing, I know…

Ska has been around for a while, and just like the name, the sound is a strange one. Despite this, it has become an enduring style of music that has led to the birth of other sounds as well.

In this article, I’ll be finding out, “What is Ska Music? As well as covering some basic history of its birth, growth, and influence. And finally, examining a few excellent examples of Ska Music.

Without any further ado, let’s get into it. 

What is Ska Music

The History of Ska 

Ska music was born thanks to one very crucial phenomenon that took place in Jamaica right after the end of World War II. This was the introduction of radios into everyday life. 

Jamaicans began buying radios by the thousands. This introduced the first seeds of American music into their culture. Most notably, it was the exposure to American R&B music that would get the creative ball rolling. 

First Wave of Ska

US artists like Fats Domino, Barbie Gaye, Rosco Gordon, and Louis Jordan began influencing the tastes of numerous listeners. As were droves of Jamaican musicians who were looking for new sounds to experiment with. 

American military forces stationed in Jamaica during and after the war led to the locals listening to the Army broadcasts. Coupled with this was an influx of record shipments from the US. 

Soon, the demand for more of this music became too high for the market to bear. This, in turn, gave rise to pioneers such as Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd, and Duke Reid. These three, along with a handful of others, began forming groups called “Sound Systems.”

Sound Systems 

The term “Sound System” refers to a group of DJs, engineers, and MCs who come together to play Reggae, Calypso, Rocksteady, and of course, Ska music. The term was born in Jamaica during the early days, right before what would later become known as the First Wave of Ska. 

From “Dubplates” to Proper Wax

By the late 1950s, the steady stream of new sounds coming in from the US began to dry up as tastes and cultures began to evolve. 

The Jamaican market was also hungry for something new. So, some producers began recording their versions of the songs that they heard on the radio or from imported singles. 

These first recordings weren’t given too much thought… 

Additionally, many of the early ones were recorded on what is commonly called “soft wax” or “dubplates.” These acetate discs were used as a sort of “tester” before the final master of a proper record would be made.

However, the demand for these locally produced records began growing at a tremendous rate. By 1959, local artists and producers like Dodd and Duke Reid began to issue their own 45 RPM 7-inch singles. 

Taking form…

These were mostly imitations of the American R&B and Jump Blues records they were listening to. Some of the Blues tracks from the late 50s were already using an “off-beat” guitar chop that was so loved by the Jamaican DJs. 

Two good examples of this are Fats Domino’s “Be My Guest” and Barbie Gaye’s “My Boy Lollipop.” 

Who Invented Ska Music?

No one has a definitive answer as to who actually created Ska Music. A popular response is that Prince Buster gave birth to the Ska sound during the first recording session at his newly opened label, Wild Bells. 

By taking an R&B beat and turning it on its head, Buster created the backbone of what would become Ska music. With help from the guitar, new music was born in which the off-beat was getting accentuated. 

Traditional elements from indigenous styles like Jamaican Calypso and Mento music further added flavor to this new stew that was brewing. 

Stirring it up…

It wasn’t only a new kind of music that was coming up in the country. There was also tremendous energy in the air thanks to the coming independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. The Ska sound was the sound of freedom to many. 

In terms of labels, the credit must fall to Kingston-based names like Federal Records, Studio One, and WIRL Records. It was at these studios that some of the very first Ska Music hits would be recorded by guys like Dodd, Reid, Prince Buster, and Edward Seaga. 

Art is often a reflection of society. And the feelings of euphoria around the coming independence from western rule were reflected in early hits like “Forward March” by Derick Morgan and “Freedom Sound” by The Skatalites.

Another important occurrence… 

One that helped shape the sound of first wave Ska Music was Jamaican’s copyright laws, or rather lack thereof. With the country having declared independence, they hadn’t yet sorted out many of their laws and regulations. 

Jamaica only got around to altering the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works after a plethora of fantastic cover songs were released and spread across the nation. 

One of the most popular releases was Millie Small’s 1964 interpretation of “My Boy Lollipop” by Barbie Baye. The track became the country’s first commercially successful hit. Selling over seven million copies and etching a permanent place amongst the greatest Ska songs ever.

How does it feel?

Many Jamaican artists would enjoy success recording instrumental arrangements of great songs by western groups. Two of the most notable covers are by The Wailers. 

They had two hits with “And I Love Her,” originally by The Beatles. And a radical reinterpretation of “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan. 

The Wailers later experimented with Latin songs and beyond. The Ska sound could now be heard on the recordings of The SkatalitesLord CreatorRoland AlphonsoDesmond Dekker, and many others.

Ska Music Meets the World

Ska Music Meets the World

This new music quickly established itself in Jamaica. But, it had yet to make itself known to the rest of the world. Luckily, a chance to do just that was given to a handful of musicians at the 1964 World’s Fair held in New York. 

This performance included Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, Prince Buster, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Jimmy Cliff. It is considered by many to be the debut of Ska Music to the world. And it gave way to a much-needed new influx of sounds between Western and African sounds. 

A short-lived off-shoot mixture emerged of slower, smoother jazz and Soul numbers of the 60s and Ska. It was called Rocksteady, and it had its heyday between 1967 and 1969. 

But Ska Music was destined for bigger things…

By 1968, there was this little thing called “Reggae” happening in Jamaica. And Ska was one of its parents. Yes, it’s true, Ska Music helped create Reggae music, and it hadn’t even gotten started.

So, when people ask, “What is Ska Music?” they usually ignore the first wave. More than likely, they are asking about the second wave of Ska Music.

The Second Wave of Ska Music and 2 Tone Records

In the late 70s, Ska decided to make a comeback with a whole new look. Groups in and around the Coventry area in the United Kingdom began mixing the rhythms and melodies of old Ska tunes with the more aggressive tones of Punk and Rock. 

Power chords and rumbling basslines…

This new version of Ska Music gained notoriety under the moniker of 2 Tone. This was due to the label of the same name releasing so much of this Ska revival music. 2 Tone records was to the second wave of Ska what Motown records were to Soul and R&B music. 

The label was founded by keyboardist and songwriter for The Specials, Jerry Dammers, and was based in Coventry. “A Message To You Rudy” by The Specials in 1979 is considered one of the earliest second-wave Ska Music tracks. 

Compared to the first wave of Ska… 

2 Tone was faster, fuller, and much more aggressive. Unsurprisingly, both genres had controversial lyrics that reflected very touchy subjects of the time. 

The first wave of Ska Music addressed the impending Jamaican independence. The second wave of Ska preached racial unity at a time when racial tensions in the UK were high. 

One of the most vivid snapshots in the 2 Tone chronicle would be the 1981 hit by The Specials, “Ghost Town.” A track inspired by and released during a time when there were riots in the streets of England. 

Second Wave Ska Musicians

Many of the groups that rose to the limelight during this period had multi-racial line-ups. These included The Specials, The Beat (AKA The English Beat), and The Selecter. Groups that are now considered seminal in creating the 2 Tone sound. 

Some blokes in the UK…

There is a group that can be said to have made a bigger impact than almost anyone. That band was Madness, and the single was “One Step Beyond.” A track that resonated with a myriad of dissatisfied minorities across the country and directly addressed the issues faced by those angry faces. 

“One Step Beyond” is often credited with bringing second-wave Ska to the masses. Madness would go on to enjoy immense success. And, along with other bands, they would lay the groundwork for yet another rebirth of the original sound that started in Jamaica during the late 60s. 

Unfortunately, the second wave of Ska would only enjoy success limited in the UK. However, the genre would make enough of an impact to inspire yet another rebirth far across the sea. 

The Third Wave of Ska – Ska, Punk, and Onward

The third wave of Ska was born during the 80s, but its heyday was in the 90s. It continued the Punk influence on the sound. Although, this new iteration possessed an American flavor which gave it a new and fresh texture. 

There were third-wave Ska bands who reached further back and retained the sounds of the very first Ska artists. But, they enjoyed less success than Punk-based Ska acts of the late 80s and 90s. 

Many of the very successful Ska groups from this era made use of extensive brass sections. Albino Brown is also credited with helping to bring these bands to the ears of new audiences. Among the feathers in his cap are the platinum-selling groups No Doubt and Sublime. 

Third Wave Ska Artists

A flood of groups came from this 90 explosion of new Ska music. They include Big D and The Kids TableThe Mighty Mighty BosstonesStreetlight ManifestoVoodoo Glow Skulls, and many more. These groups combined big-sounding guitar riffs with up-tempo beats and a big brass section. 

The 80s and 90s would see a myriad of off-shoots of the Ska sound. One of these included “Ska Surf,” which came from the Ministry of Ska’s seminal album, Rarin’ To Go. Into the 90s, folks started holding Ska festivals again, and Skinhead culture re-emerged into society. 

Throughout the 80s and 90s… 

Ska scenes, labels, and groups started popping up all over Europe. One of the most notable scenes took place in Germany. They saw the rise of groups like The Busters and the advent of massive Ska festivals being held there. 

In Spain, Ska took hold, with groups like Kortatutu and Poatu becoming immensely popular. In Australia, the 80 saw the rise of The Porkers and Melbourne Ska Orchestra

Even in Russia, Ska managed to find a foothold. Groups like Spitfire, Distemper, Leningrad, and Markscheider Kunst became immensely popular during the nineties. 

What is Ska Music? – Musical Attributes

Musical Attributes

In terms of tone, Ska music can be defined by a myriad of things. The traditional mixing of Rock instruments with big brass sections and walking basslines is one of the central themes. 

Although, when you listen to traditional Ska Music, you’ll notice that the guitars do not sound like Rock n Roll. But, the walking baseline remains.

Ska Music usually sees singers going back and forth with big brass sections; this means that the two rarely take center stage together. The drums are usually played in 4/4 time. 

But that’s not all…

Another defining characteristic of Ska Music is the “offbeat” usually accented by the guitar and drums. This influence would later become central in genres like Reggae as well. 

Finally, a good Ska tune will usually have lyrics that have to do with social reform or some kind of justice being served. Although, some plain and simple lyrics about love and reconciliation can be found as well. 

Ska Music – Examples

Now that we’ve gotten acquainted with the Ska genre, its history, and many forms, let’s look at some examples of the genre in action, shall we?

The Skatalites

The Skatalites are a fantastic example of the first wave of Ska. They are seminal in introducing the genre to the world and are still considered one of the most popular Ska Music groups

They were known for their great horn section. It consisted of many players and had great energy that was due in large part to those hypnotic off-beat rhythms. If instrumental music is what you like, then this is the Ska group for you. 

The Interrupters 

A family Ska band from Los Angles, led by the group’s singer Amy Allen. They are one of the few second-wave groups who are still going and trying new things. And the group retains its strong Punk influences. 

If you listen to their latest releases, you’ll hear a sound that has been sharpened to a catchy hypnotic weapon. A personal recommendation is “She’s Kerosene.”

The Pirate Ska Rebellion

Here’s one of the more off-beat modern examples of Ska Music and how it’s managed to survive. The group retains a lot of the traditional sound from early Ska Music. They are known for creating beautiful melodies with soul influence and mixing them with groovy reggae beats. 

Looking for Great Music?

Well, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Reggae Songs Ever, the Best Songs Of All Time, the Best Gospel Songs, the Best 90s Hip Hop Songs, and the Best 2000s R&B Songs for more incredible song selections.

Of course, you’ll want to listen to those tunes. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Noise Isolating Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Best Bass Earbuds, the Best True Wireless Earbuds, and the Best iPhone Earbuds you can buy in 2022.

And don’t miss our comprehensive reviews of the Best Solar Powered Bluetooth Speakers, the Loudest Portable Bluetooth Speakers, the Best Wireless Outdoor Speakers, the Best Waterproof Speakers, and the Best Party Speakers currently on the market.

What is Ska Music? – Final Thoughts

It’s a unique mixture of Jamaican genres like Calypso and Mento with American R&B from the 50s. As a result, Ska music created enduring genres like Rocksteady and Reggae. Furthermore, Ska music has reinvented itself at least three times to create three distinct sounds. 

Do you want laid-back, positive energy? Or a more upbeat and aggressive flavor? Whatever you are after, one of the styles of Ska music will be right for you. 

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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