Styles & Forms | Ska | Reggae

Ska represents the birth of modern popular Jamaican music, and it does so with the accent on ‘Jamaican’. While this raucous, uptempo, good-times music may have had its roots in American big-band jazz and R&B, it was conceived as a celebration of Jamaican independence.

Ska is the link between the virtuoso playing of Kingston’s sophisticated nightclub musicians and the vibrancy of the downtown sound systems. It revolutionized Jamaican life and the island’s place in the world at the time.

As an alternative to the very English radio programming in pre-independence Jamaica (light classics, light jazz and light chat), citizens were tuning into the powerful radio stations broadcasting from New Orleans and Miami, which presented a steady diet of R&B, blues and jump jazz. As a result, American music was informing Jamaican popular taste, and while it might have been a great deal of fun, such cultural colonialism in the 1950s, after the island’s independence process had been set in motion, no longer fitted the mood. By then, Jamaican-ness was what counted, and so a home-grown soundtrack was obligatory. Ska was that music, and it was taken straight to people’s hearts because it was born downtown among those same people at their sound system dances.

Identifiably Jamaican

At its essence, ska is an R&B structure and a jazz attitude, mixed together with enough Jamaican flavouring to give it its own identity. And, like practically every subsequent musical development on the island, it was precipitated by sound men. Coxsone Dodd and Prince Buster, two of Jamaica’s biggest sound men, read the mood and wanted to change the beat. By the start of the 1960s, they were running out of new R&B records to play at their dances. They needed a change of music to keep them out in front of their rivals, and they and their crowds were getting swept along by independence fever. As a result, and independently of each other, Buster and Dodd both devised variations on the standard R&B boogie rhythm to create something new that was also identifiably Jamaican.

Buster and Dodd both retained the shuffle beat from R&B to power ska along as a dance style, and this can be heard when they cut, respectively, tracks like ‘Oh Carolina’ by The Folkes Brothers or ‘They Got To Go’ by Buster himself, and ‘Easy Snappin’’ by Theophilus Beckford or ‘Time To Play’ by The Mello Larks. As can also be heard on these (almost) prototype records, they both switched the arrangement’s emphasis around from the first and third beats of the bar to the second and fourth, creating the off-beat focus that remained at the centre of Jamaican music for years to come. Whereas Dodd, a jazz fan, then looked to add instrumental passages, Buster opted for more intrinsically Jamaican additions such as Rasta drumming and mento (Jamaican calypso) references. This was the basis of the ska sound and it expanded into music that was galloping, virtuosic and largely instrumental,...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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