What Is Ska Music?

Ska music is a distinctive Jamaican musical genre created in the late-1950’s, which went on to influence the later reggae music form. Ska music itself was heavily influenced by Jamaican “mento music”, as well as calypso music out of Trinidad & Tobago. Ska songs also incorporated influences from American jazz (especially jazz horns) and American rhythm and blues. Ska music is known for a walking bass line and offbeat rhythms, much like reggae music, though ska is an upbeat music form, while reggae is a downbeat music form.

I’ll try to give an overview of ska music in its various forms. I hope hardcore fans of ska music won’t get offended when I mention the ska-influenced bands who achieved mainstream attention, since I’m answering this question for a reader who wants to know “what is ska music”, not “what is the best ska band I’ve never heard of”. In other words, I’ll try to give someone new to ska music a picture of the genre to which they might be able to relate.

Jamaican Mento Music

Mento music was a Jamaican folk music heavily influenced by the music traditions of African slaves. Of course, because Jamaican slaves who played music often played for their masters, mento music came to be influenced by European music forms, too. Mento often commented on the traditional poverty of Jamaicans, as well as social issues like poor housing, but usually in a sly and humorous way. This light-heartedness influenced ska music, when it took over for mento as the most popular music in Jamaica in the 1960’s.

Ska Music Beginnings

Most people trace the beginnings of ska music to the late-1950’s or early 1960’s, and a generally accepted timeline for the creation of ska is between 1959 and 1961. This corresponds to a growing influence of American pop culture in Jamaica.

After World War II, many Jamaicans began buying radios. These radios often picked up stations out of the American deep south, particularly New Orleans. Therefore, Jamaicans began to hear the popular jazz and rhythm & blues tunes played on New Orleans radio. Also, American troops were stationed in and near Jamaica during the early years of the Cold War, due to treaties signed between the U.S. and British governments during World War II. This further brought American musical influences to the Caribbean.

ska-musicAs mentioned earlier, mento music was popular in Jamaica in the 1950’s. For the younger generation of Jamaican musicians, though, mento influences began to mix with American influences, and the product was known as “ska music”. In the early-1960’s, the fast-paced, generally light-hearted ska songs were the rage in Jamaica.

Ska would go on to influence both rocksteady and reggae music. By the mid-1960’s, some ska musicians were slowing down the offbeats of ska tunes, creating the rocksteady genre of music. A few years later, certain other Jamaican musicians would slow down the rocksteady beats once again, leading to reggae music. These days, ska music remains popular in Jamaica, though reggae has eclipsed ska in both worldwide and native popularity.

What Is Ska Music And 2 Tone?

Ska music gained a following in countries outside of Jamaica, most notably and most naturally in England. By 1964, the mods of England began to listen to ska music. This came and went, but certain kids of the 1960’s who enjoyed Jamaican music incorporated came of age in the late-1970’s and began developing their own music, which came to be known as 2 Tone.

“2 Tone” combined the harder and edgier tunes of punk music and even some pop music with the offbeats of ska music. The product was something faster and harder than original Jamaican ska music, but also more varied and layered than punk rock. The music genre was named after 2 Tone Records, which helped popularize many of the Two-Tone bands. Some of these bands included The Specials, the Beat and the Bodysnatchers.

What Is Ska Music “Third Wave” Mean?

The “third wave” of ska music started in Southern California in the United States in the 1980’s. These bands were influenced mainly by the “2 Tone” bands of England. Third wave ska featured faster tempos and accented offbeats, as well as a focus on brass instruments.

Several of the third wave ska bands achieved notoriety in America and worldwide. Fishbone, for example, is considered a fusion of ska, funk metal and punk rock. Formed in 1979, Fishbone has achieved consistent critical success and garnered a loyal fan following. Casual pop fans might remember their 1991 hit, “Everyday Sunshine”. Other early ska bands who made an impact were The Donkey Show, Let’s Go Bowling and the Uptones. Along the way, some of these bands branched off into sub-genres of ska like “ska punk” and “ska-core”.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are generally put in the ska-core category. They had a high with their 1993 addition to the Clueless film soundtrack, “Where’d You Go?”. In 1997, the BossTones had their biggest commercial success with the #23 hit, “The Impression That I Get”. Fans of the 1990’s pop music scene might remember the Mighty Mighty Bosstones as the band with the ever-present non-musician (sometimes referred to as “Bosstone”) dancing onstage. This unique part of the act was performed by Ben Carr, who was also the manager of the band. Another ska hit was “Sell Out” by Reel Big Fish, which the band subsequently complained about on a song called “One Hit Wonderful”, because it seems to overshadow all the other songs they’ve performed over the years.

Showing that Third wave ska music was not all upbeat, the ska band Sublime had a hit with the song “Santeria”. This song gained widespread mainstream attention and the video, which featured a western theme featuring actor Tiny Lister and ghostlike video clips of late Sublime singer/guitarist, Bradley Nowell, who had died of a heroin overdose two months before that particular album was released in 1996. The video became popular in 1997.

Of course, the biggest mainstream success from the ska 3rd wave was No Doubt. The band’s singer, Gwen Stefani, is continuing her breakout solo success even today, though she was originally just an add-on member because her brother was in the band. No Doubt hit the charts in 1996 with hit songs like “Spiderwebs”, “I’m Just a Girl” and “Don’t Speak”, and became a major musical force in the pop culture of the late-1990’s.

Ska Music Overview

Meanwhile, ska music remains a popular musical genre back in Jamaica. In fact, ska-influenced genres have popped up all over the world, though the proliferation of sub-genres might make it hard to know exactly what is ska music. Some American third wave ska bands, like the Slackers, Hepcat and the Allstonians, continue to produce music that sounds more like the original ska sound of 1960’s Jamaica. Like any successful musical genre, ska music has evolved into an expansive style of music, which has brought joy and entertainment to millions of fans worldwide with generally fun-loving, upbeat songs.

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