Ska - Fantastic Rhythm

Fascinating rhythm

Fresh out of young Jamaica in the 60s, ska became the defining sound of a vibrant music scene - in turn it influenced 70s reggae, and was rediscovered by the Specials and Madness. Sean O'Hagan sifts the stories of the original rude boys and dance crashes

Friday October 29, 1999

Ska was the sound of young Jamaica, a fresh, cutting-edge music that came into being around the end of 1961, just a few months before the island gained independence. From the beginning, it was a primal, charged-up sound that echoed the excitement of a small, chaotic country struggling to shake off its colonial past and forge a new organic identity. But it was also, at best, an extraordinarily sophisticated hybrid, fusing the Afro-Latin rhythms of mento, Jamaica's indigenous folk music, with the shuffling boogie of New Orleans' R&B.
Like mento, ska was both a dance music and a folk music. It commented on political and social changes, on local events and gossip as well as imported trends, and, in often ribald terms, outlined the unchanging codes of romantic and sexual courtship. At a Friday-night dance or "jump-up", a proud and patriotic tune like Independence Ska by Baba Brooks could segue into a lewd and low-down ditty like Doctor Dick by Lee Perry & The Soulettes, which in turn might give way to Illya Kurayakin by Ike & the Crystalites, a homage to the latest imported American television series - in this case, The Man from Uncle.
What mattered most, though, above the lyrical content or the subtle, sinuous horn solos, was the fierceness of the rhythm: the hip-shaking, insistent afterbeat provided by a single repeated percussive piano note or, more often, the chopped, staccato guitar riff that gave the music its onomatopoeic title.
Back then, like today, the most important shapers of Jamaican popular taste were not the musicians who created the rhythms but the sound-system operators who spread than across the island. The big two were Duke Reid and Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. Both men had been in furious competition since the days when imported American R&B records were the main currency of the dancehalls, and DJs would scrape off the label of a hot single lest spies from a competing business uncovered the identity of the song.
Duke Reid was the most flamboyant, a flash dude given to wearing sharkskin suits and a bejewelled crown, who often made his entrance carrying a shotgun in one hand and a .45 pistol in the other. The hardware was not just ornamental, though; once he threatened a rival with a primed second-world-war hand grenade.
Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, nicknamed after a Yorkshire cricketer, was a more enigmatic character who would later create the famed Studio One sound, reggae's equivalent - creatively if not commercially - to America's Tamla Motown soul label. In the late 50s, he employed as his apprentices both Prince Buster, an ex-boxer turned DJ, who would become one of ska's defining voices, and the young Lee Perry, who would later emerge as the most visionary reggae producer of the 70s. Both men spent an inordinate amount of their time dodging Duke Reid's prowling gangs of "rude boys" (hooligans), Prince Buster once proving his mettle by taking on and defeating four muggers who had left the diminutive Perry unconscious and were in the process of stealing his box of records.
By the early 60s, when rivalry between the sound systems was intense and, often, bloody, individuals known as "dance crashers" were employed to infiltrate a crowd, loudly ridicule the DJ's selections, and, if all else failed, violently disrupt the show. Their antics lead to the recording of a best-selling condemnation, Dance Crasher, by Alton Ellis and the Flames - produced by Duke Reid, the man who often instigated the practice.
A spate of records ensued either celebrating or deploring the roughneck element that attached itself to the music, including the explosive Rudie Bam Bam by the Clarendonians and the more cautionary Don't Be a Rude Boy by the Rulers. Lee Perry, then a vocalist, weighed in with a series of records cryptically referring to the rivalry between the sound systems, most notably 1963's Prince and Duke, which in true Perry fashion poked fun at both Prince Buster and Duke Reid.
Coxsone Dodd was the first to record the fledgling ska sound. His studio-cum-shop, Coxsone's Musik City, which opened in 1959, attracted queues of the island's musically inclined youth. Among them was one Robert Nesta Marley, who in 1961 cut his first acetate there, under the tutelage of producer Leslie Kong. It was called Judge Not, cost three shillings to record, and was made in under one hour.
The swiftness of the recording was typical of the time and spoke volumes about the standard of musicianship of the local players, most of whom had graduated from Alpha School, a strict institution for wayward shanty-town youths. Don Drummond, a trombonist who was the most gifted Jamaican musician of all, taught part-time at the school, and an array of instrumental talent graduated there, including tenor saxophonists Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso, the great pianist Jackie Mittoo, and the trombonist Rico Rodriguez - who decades later would play with the Specials as they reignited the ska flame during the post-punk Two Tone years.
Ska ignited audiences in Jamaica and, later, England, where songs like Prince Buster's Al Capone, the Skatalites' Guns of Navarone, Upsetter's Return of Django and the Pioneers' Long Shot Kick the Bucket - about the heartbreak of betting on an outsider - all made the Top 20. Like Tamla Motown soul, ska was that rare phenomenon, mass-produced pop music of an instantly identifiable type that, on single after single, effortlessly transcended its boundaries.
Often, too, as is the case with reggae, the same rhythm was used over and over to novel effect. Steve Barrow, in his sleeve notes to the compilation Mr Hornsman: Instrumental Reggae 1968-1975 (Trojan), points out that, "The Soulmates' On the Move is a horns version of the Pioneers' great Mama Look Deh, later versioned by the Maytals as Monkey Man." The same tune was covered by the Specials in the late 70s and both its rhythm and chorus have been sampled by rappers and junglists alike in the 90s.
Ultimately though, the sound of ska was defined by one group, the Skatalites, led by Don Drummond, who almost single-handedly shaped the course of modern Jamaican music, backing everyone from Prince Buster to Toots and the Maytals. Though contracted to Dodd, they recorded for all the big producers, often under different guises: on Prince Buster's various labels they were known as the Prince Buster All Stars, on King Edward's records they called themselves the Upcoming Willows.
They also released a series of taut, inventive instrumentals, including Phoenix City and Twelve Minutes to Go, both enduring ska anthems that merge hard, punchy rhythms with extraordinarily inventive solos from McCook and Drummond, and the less well known Silver Dollar, a homage to Kingston's most infamous brothel. This is jazz, Jamaican style: music aimed at the head and the hips.
After years as studio session men, the Skatalites officially formed in 1964 and, though a huge draw on the live circuit, split up just over a year later following the incarceration of their leader, Don Drummond. By all accounts a shy, introspective soul, he had grown increasingly frustrated by his lack of recognition and, perhaps more tellingly, by his exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous producers. His increasingly erratic behaviour signalled an unravelling mental state and, in early 1965, he was arrested and charged with the killing of his common-law wife. Ska's greatest musical ambassador and most tragic hero died in Kingston's Belle Vue asylum in 1969.
In many ways, the Skatalites were ska, and though the remaining members continued to record, the sound more or less died with them. Subsequently, Tommy McCook signed up to Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label, and, as leader of the Supersonics, shaped the rock-steady era in much the same way as he had mapped the contours of ska.
The cooler, more sophisticated rock-steady beat was the bridge between ska and reggae, and surprisingly found an appreciative audience in the English Mods of the mid-60s, and, more controversially, with the short-lived skinhead movement that succeeded them. Perhaps because, like its more frenetic predecessor, rock-steady was a essentially a dance music that was both spartan and sophisticated, it appealed to an audience seeking an antidote to the creeping self-indulgence of the burgeoning psychedelic rock era. Today, it sounds more vibrant and timeless than most of the so-called adventurous rock music of the time.
Like Northern Soul or 70s roots reggae, ska is a sound that has refused to die. In the vacuum left by the death of punk in the late 70s, it became the musical template for the Two-Tone movement, with groups like Madness, the Selecter and, most notably, the Specials revisiting, and reinterpreting the sound of young Jamaica for the youth of Thatcher's Britain.
Once again, a generation was alerted to the voices of Toots Hibbert and Alton Ellis, to the boastful declarations of Prince Buster, the original rude-boy ruler, and to the propulsive sound of the Skatalites in full flow. Since then, the music has continued to thrive underground - there is an obsessively authentic retro-ska movement in Japan - and it maintains a fitful relationship with the mainstream, not least because of the enduring presence of an American ska-surf-punk scene - though, perhaps, the less said about No Doubt the better.
The spirit of ska lives on, too, in the plethora of contemporary post-hip-hop sub-genres wherein hard-edged beats meet instrumental improvisation - that's everything from New York's M-Base experimentalists to UK stables like Pussyfoot and Mo' Wax. Somewhere, somehow, the beat goes on.
• Suggs from Madness presents a programme about ska, Earthquake on Orange Street, on Radio 4 at 11am, November 5.

Sun -
January 26, 2003 at 03:00 PM