Step into the shoes of an enterprising young man in Jamaica towards the close of the 1950’s. You’re enjoying life in the newly-formed Federation of the West Indies and are looking for a way to make some money. For the young and energetic, as is so often the case today, the most obvious avenue to explore is entertainment, and you soon hit upon the idea of creating a sound system, a kind of roving nightclub taking music to the people. You borrow some money, you lay your hands on the equipment, and off you go.
Your paying customers are infatuated with Rhythm and Blues, the sound of Black America, and in particular the Jump Blues of Fats Domino and Memphis Slim. You cater to their wishes, hiring selectors (that’s a DJ to you and me) who’ll keep the punters happy. You’re making enough to meet your costs and put a new suit on your back.
But what happens if American musical tastes change and Jump Blues fades from production? What if your constituent audience doesn’t take to the new-fangled Rock ‘n’ Roll? How do you fill the gap? As an imaginative, resourceful businessman you take a bold leap forward – by using your profits to find a new source of music. A Jamaican music, importantly one that you can control. And that was Ska.
The obvious question to ask is this; who invented Ska? The honest answer is I have no idea, nobody does. It’s impossible to pinpoint a single person, date or location. Creation doesn’t work that way, nothing is dreamed into existence or pulled fully formed from the ether. Rather, new life, a fresh wind, is breathed into something old and converts it into something novel. And so it was with this new music, this combination of Jump Blues, of Jazz, of Calypso, of Mento. Only the latter of these, the acoustic quasi-Calypso born in rural Jamaica, needs any explanation.
And so, having found this new, local and, most importantly cheap, music the real-life owners of the sound systems – entrepreneurs like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster – sought to claim it for themselves. They put together bands capable of churning out the records they required and found singers ready to add their voices to them. The problem for us, half a century later, in attempting to locate the precise time, date and circumstances surrounding the birth is that the aforementioned midwives, along with the likes of Byron Lee and Leslie Kong, each put their own stamp on the music, leading to a somewhat disparate sound.
This is where The Skatalites, perhaps the most famous Ska band of all time, come into play. A composite of the best local musicians, led by the skilled Jazz players Tommy McCook, Don Drummond and Roland Alphonso, they began by testing the water in the recording studio. The studio bosses liked what they heard and they became effectively the house band at Studio One, then Jamaica’s leading record label. They were the equivalent of Motown’s Funk Brothers and along the way they somewhat cheekily laid claim to being the originators of the genre.
That assertion might not have been true but they did, however, create a distinctive sound, a recognisable and definitive Ska which reached its zenith through 1962-65, co-inciding with the period of The Skatalites original line up. The founding trio insisted on putting the brass section – three saxophones, a trumpet, trombone and occasional flute – front and centre. The rhythm section may have carried the tune (and possibly the onomatopoeic name of the music), but they certainly weren’t the stars. It became the archetypal sound of the genre.
This period includes my own favourite Ska record and one that, in my opinion, proves definitive. ‘Carry Go Bring Come’ by Justin Hinds and The Dominoes contains everything that is special about that era and those musicians. It carries rebellious lyrics, is relentlessly up-tempo, and has a thumping brass section. It’s a genuine delight. But from here on in Ska began to change, to slow down, as the impresarios sought once again to meet the demands of the populace. The occasionally frantic pace meant that courting couples lacked the opportunity to dance close to one another, and they required this anomaly be rectified.
The new, noticeably calmer, incarnation became known as Rocksteady. It still necessitated a brass section but its role was noticeably reduced. Within a year or two they had been repositioned once more, this time to the back of the stage and sometimes even removed from it entirely. The music slowed further, the bass lines grew heavier and picked up reverb, the sound became fatter. Reggae had been born.
I’ve already mentioned both my favourite track and, in my opinion, the most influential band, so perhaps I’ll round things out a little by providing a name check for a couple of my favourite singers: Toots Hibbert and Jackie Opel. As well as appearing on some of the best tracks of the genre, they both have deep, soulful voices.
And it would be a truly terrible article on the history and influence of Ska if Prince Buster were listed solely as the owner of a sound system – he was so much more than that. He was the first of those entrepreneurs to enter the studio himself, where he became an accomplished engineer and producer, he was the first to utilise nyabinghi drummers, and he was a talented singer and songwriter in his own right. Most importantly of all he was an icon, for both an art form and an emerging nation.
And where does Bluebeat Boy come from? Blue Beat Records was set up in Britain in 1960, with the purpose of importing ‘Jamaican Blues’ as it was then called. Regardless of which label originally produced the record, Blue Beat brought them to the UK and, as a result, Bluebeat became a generic term for the style of music, before the word Ska gained ascendancy.
The business initially aimed to cater to the growing Jamaican émigré community, but it proved unexpectedly popular amongst a wider group and both the music and associated fashion began to spread. Mods who’d previously been listening to Motown, Atlantic and Stax instead turned their attention to Ska, and a distinctive British sub-culture began, to be carried forward by later revivals and musical offspring. That’s where it survives today, in the record shops and club nights, kept alive by its loyal devotees.