Monday, November 16, 2009

'Carry, Go, Bring, Come' A Comparative History of Ska Music

I'm happy to be writing our first (of hopefully many) 'Music Monday' blog posts focused on the broad, deep, and beloved topic of, you guessed it, Music. Every Monday we'll be sharing little tidbits of musical magic that we come across from the annals of music history to the streets of DC (and wherever else we can afford to travel). We hope to write about a few of our musical interests, and we hope you enjoy them, but we also want you, the reader, to participate in the discussion and send in ideas for new posts and guest blogs. Saying we're writing about music once a week is about as specific as saying we're writing about nouns once a week, one at a time. I don't want to limit or exclude the genres we will or could be covering, but our musical topics (and interests) will develop over the next several weeks. We will be writing about everything from local performances and new groups to past artists and albums, to researched explanations and analysis of styles, which is where we will begin our introduction to Music Monday with a comparative history of Ska music using the song "Carry Go Bring Come"...

Ska is a high-energy music that combines several styles of music from Africa and the Americas while maintaining a distinct, independent attitude. The first wave of ska began in the 1960s in Jamaica. It spawned from traditional Jamaican folk music, called Mento, and American music, primarily Jazz and R&B, heard from high powered radio stations in New Orleans and Miami. Mento is responsible for the signature accentuation of the up beat, while Jazz affected the instrumentation and song layout of ska, and R&B was responsible for the rhythmic stress on the second and fourth beats of a 4/4 measure. First wave ska groups like Toots and the Maytals, Dandy Livingston, and Jimmy Cliff, were usually made up of a bass, a strummed guitar or banjo, and some sort of percussion, though usually not a full drum set, just whatever was available or affordable, typically hi-hat cymbals and a snare drum. On top of that, there would be a horn section, typically two musicians using either a saxophone, a trumpet, or a homemade horn. The vocals were either sung very clearly, usually when covering a top American hit, or, more often in a think Jamaican accent. There often were a couple of backup singers who sang relatively simple harmonies along with the lead vocalist or played the second part of a call and response pattern. The themes and subjects for the songs often revolved around living on the wrong side of the heavily socio-economically divided Jamaica of the 60s. Much of the music either stressed a unified Jamaican identity or the violent lifestyle of the repressed Rude Boys, who lived a vagrant lifestyle on the streets and countrysides of Jamaica.

Ska music in Jamaica mostly died out in the 1970s, as the slower Reggae style it birthed overtook it in popularity, but it regained popularity in the early 1980s when ska music found a new home across the Atlantic Ocean in England, known as second wave ska. Groups such as The Slackers, Judge Dread, and the Clash became popular with teenagers and young adults who, like the Rude Boys, felt rejected by popular society. These new Rude Boys took to one of two styles, either the poorer, leather coated skinheads or the richer, Two Tones, named aptly for their two toned garb of a single dark colored jacket, slacks, shoes, tie, and porkpie hat on top of a white shirt and socks. Though the two groups sometimes clashed philosophically, they were unified by the us-against-the-world attitude developed from the mixing of first wave ska with punk music and 80s rock music. The punk influence is most notable in the lyrics, which are yelled more than sung, and the beat, which is faster, more driving, and anchored in the drums. The vocals are cruder, expressing more base emotions. The backup vocals follow this style in several voices, sounding more like a gang supporting the lead voice, even when harmonizing. The instruments are more modern, well recorded, and electric, as there was more money and better equipment in London for recording than there was in a developing Jamaica. There is a well audible, complete drum set, as well as a generally larger horn section, often consisting of 3 to 4 musicians on saxophone, trumpet, and trombone. The bass and guitar were electrified and became more distinctive. Often an electric keyboard or organ was added to further develop and expand the sound.

The transition from Second Wave ska wasn’t as dramatic or difficult as the move towards it. Third wave ska is a much broader distinction than either the first or second wave, but it primarily refers to ska music found primarily in the United States from the 90s or later. It is such a broad category because it doesn’t refer to just one or two merging styles of music, but instead the merging of first and second wave ska with all different kinds of music. Included in its influences are many of the styles that helped create the earlier waves, especially Jazz music. Rock & roll, reggae, and 90s punk music also are very important influences, though third wave ska can draw from a variety of other styles, like funk, blues, Cuban, calypso, house, and even Irish folk and Klezmer music. Though the sound and instrumentation vary, the personality of fans stay constant, maintaining similar attitudes of the previous waves though not as pronounced and in a variety of ways. Though there isn’t one specific type of follower, like the rude boys, skin heads, or two tones, all of which do still exist in third wave fans, the audience is generally a fringe niche of the the average music listener. As I said, there are a wide variety of Ska groups, but some of my favorite are the Pietasters, the Slackers, the Toasters, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

For a comparative example, I'm going to use "Carry Go Bring Come" to highlight a few of the differences between the three waves. The song was first played by Justin Hinds and the Dominoes in Jamaica, but has been covered several times since then. I have chosen a version by Desmond Dekker and the Slackers for the Second Wave example and a version by Tony Greene for the Third Wave.

In the First Wave version by Justin Hinds and the Dominoes (which you can GET HERE FROM ITUNES), you can hear the simple arrangement of acoustic instruments. There appears to be a standup bass, a snare with single ride cymbal, and 3 horns, one that solos and harmonizes while the other two maintain the classic ska rhythm on the upbeat. Also present is some simple vocal accompaniment, which doesn't really harmonize like most vocals, but instead sounds like vocal reinforcement- two additional vocals singing the same thing as the main singer to accentuate, instead of accompanying it. The song clearly exhibits the upbeat mento dance feeling, but there is clear inspiration from Jazz in the horn solo.

The second wave version (which you can GET HERE FROM ITUNES) is by Desmond Dekker, one of the few first wave stars who continued into the second wave, and the Specials, possibly the best known second wave group. The addition of electronic instruments is evident from the very beginning of the song. An electric guitar has taken the responsibility of keeping the beat and the soloing horn sounds highly refined, if not outright synthesizer generated. The song on a whole is a lot more refined and clear, thanks in large part to better recording technology and a fuller drum set, which uses the quieter and more precise hi-hat cymbals to keep the rhythm instead of a louder and more resonant ride cymbal.

The Third Wave version by Tony Greene (which you can GET HERE FROM ITUNES) is clearly a lot more refined and better recorded than the First Wave version but it swings a lot more than the regimented sounding Second Wave version. The fusing musical style here is Jazz, which is evident by the fact that there are no vocals. The instrumentation is deeper, with several distinguishable instruments and multiple solos as opposed to the single solo in each of the previous two versions. Moreover, each instrument is more creative and playful and the song is more expansive and expressive expressive than the previous versions.

The combining of music styles in the third wave has helped to broaden the base of ska fans and also popularize ska music itself, bringing awareness, popularity, and interest from fans, such as myself, to its history and the earlier waves. By explaining and hearing some of the differences, I hope that you can better understand and determine the diversity of Ska music our there and appreciate it as much as I do.

Please email me at for more info, questions, corrections, and/or citations.

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