Skank It Up

As ska gets down for the third time, it's never been more alive

here's a scene in the new movie Scandal no self-respecting ska fan should miss. Christine Keeler is taken to London's West End section by her friend Dr. Stephen Ward to score some ganja. She ends up in a smoky dance hall where she meets a sharp-dressed rude boy played by Fine Young Cannibals' singer Roland Gift. In the background, vintage Don Drummond ska--an intoxicating combination of Jamaican folk rhythms, African beats, calypso syncopation and bebop jazz--pumps away through a massive sound system.

Whether coincidental or not, the scene neatly brings together the various eras of ska. The circa '63 music of Drummond and presence of Gift (who sings in Fine Young Cannibals for ex-members of the early Eighties ska band English Beat) come together in a movie that appears at the beginning of ska's third major revival.

Thanks to the international presence of increasingly popular ska bands including Skaos (West Germany), the Deltones (U.K.), and the Toasters (U.S.), a new push by ska-only labels and a rekindled interest in the original sound, ska is once again making a comeback. This revival, which comes nearly a decade after the 2-Tone movement and two decades after the skinhead mod scene (for whatever reason, ska has returned at the end of the Sixties, Seventies, and now Eighties), features bands retro-fitting soul, funk and R&B into a ska format. And in contrast to the ska of ten years ago, these new, almost entirely white bands are strenuously non-political.

Their approach seems to be working. Today's most popular bands are attracting audiences of far larger proportions than the 2-Tone bands ever dreamed. Avoiding any political content or alliance, the new, technically superior bands zero in on danceability. (Bear in mind that the ska of the 2-Tone bands and the new bands is almost always played much faster, sometimes twice as fast, as the original jazzier style played by Don Drummond.)

The international crossbreeding of the new bands has led to the emergence of record labels devoted entirely to ska. In the U.S., Celluloid Records has just started its ska-only sub-label, Skaloid. In the U.K., the Unicorn, Skank and GAZ's record labels are promoting all-ska rosters. Individual albums by bands like Skaos and Bim Skala Bim (U.S.), Potato 5 (U.K.), the Ska Flames (Japan), Napoleon Solo (Denmark), Mr. Review (Holland), and the Loafers (U.K.) are filling to the brim ska bins in record stores. The sudden appearance of so many ska bands has also prompted the issuance of compilation albums, two of which-- Skankin' 'Round the World and Skankin' 'Round the World, Vol. II--serve as a good place to check out the angle of the new bands, most of whom are quite proficient.

And right beside albums by new ska bands, one can find old Drummond-era products. Compilation albums of hit singles from the Sixties are turning up in increasing quantity. Small specialty labels are archiving vast amounts of tracks that have been unavailable for nearly 25 years. "Man in the Street" and "China Clipper," two Drummond classics, even showed up on the soundtrack during the opening and closing scenes of last year's Mickey Rourke flick, Barfly.

It's only fitting that Don Drummond, the brooding genius who single-handedly invented ska back in '62, is being exhumed at the same time new ska is making the scene.

Working in the nascent stages of the fledgling Jamaican music industry, Drummond formed the Skatalites, without a doubt ska's all-time premier band. At the time, Drummond was considered one of the top ten trombonists alive, a verifiable genius who also happened to be self-absorbed and prey to frequent bouts of mental illness. As one of the first pre-eminent Jamaican musicians to espouse Rastafarianism, Drummond incorporated religious elements that reflected the African spiritualism of the Jamaican people in his own early tunes like "Addis Ababa," "Far East," and "African Roots." As the premier backing band on the island, the Skatalites (Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook, tenor sax; Lester Sterling, alto sax; Johnny Moore and Leonard Dillon, trumpets; Jackie Mitto, piano; Lloyd Brevette, double-bass; Lloyd Knibbs, drums; Jah Jerry, guitar) accompanied virtually all of the period's top ska vocalists, including Eric Morris and Bobby Aitken. The Skatalites have played on thousands of tracks, and their rhythms have served as the template for two succeeding generations of Jamaican artists and subsequent ska revivals.

Drummond, however, was never given the critical recognition he deserved, and suffering from continuing bouts of mental illness, his life took a MD120 downward spiral. His career came to an abrupt halt on New Year's morning in 1965, when, fueled by copious amounts of white rum and ganja, he murdered his lover, Marguerite the Rhumba Queen. Drummond was subsequently committed to an insane asylum and died a lunatic in 1969.

Ironically, ska had become more popular than ever by the time of Drummond's death. The original U.K. skinhead movement adopted the sound, renamed "bluebeat," as its own. The working-class skins of that period, apolitical and non-racist, felt the music originated from a class of people in Jamaica that were just as underprivileged and disaffected as they were. Attired in their trademark loafers, porkpie hats, white socks, mohair suits and shorn heads, the skins attended bluebeat dances and mingled without incident, moon-stomping down to the beat of freshly imported ska with their Jamaican counterparts.

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