Jamaican Whoopie

Arizona's ska kings trace roots of reggae

Ska came first. Not reggae. But Rasputin died easier than the misconception that it's the other way around. As the popularity of ska continues to swell--both for traditional ska acts like Hepcat and the Pie Tasters and ska-flavored pop tarts like No Doubt and Goldfinger--so does the myth that the Skatalites sped up Marley's and Tosh's music, instead of Bob and Peter slowing theirs down.

And that really pisses off the purists. For the record--ska was born in Jamaica in the 1950s (a good 20 years before reggae) when island musicians blended traditional forms with R&B they picked up from Miami radio stations, creating ska--frenetic, colorful music based around up-tempo shuffle rhythms and bright horn lines. Get that straight, and the ska fans who've been around since before the Mighty Mighty Bosstones opened on the Lollapalooza main stage might not get so uppity about your trying to surf ska's "third wave" alongside them.

In the Valley and the country at large, ska is rapidly evolving from a small province of hard-core fans to a full-fledged trend with all the accompanying hype. And like house and hip-hop before it, the culture around the music is suffering a few growing pains. The history issue is one sore spot. Skankin' (traditional ska dancing) versus alt-nation style moshing is another.

But don't the positive effects of the growth spurt--the sudden influx of label interest, fan base and shows (which translates as work for musicians)--outweigh the bad?

Late last month, just before the start of Arizona Ska Fest '96, members of the three most prominent ska bands in the state met with New Times at a picnic table outside Boston's to discuss that question and the state of the AZ ska scene in general. The following is a round-table chat with Bart Applewhite and Dave Neil of Kongo Shock, Dave Schuttenberg of Dave's Big Deluxe, and Jesse Ribyat of Warsaw.

New Times: Why has ska exploded?
Dave Schuttenberg: Everyone is bored of everything else. It's not like ska is new, but it's the only music that's been around for 35 years that not many people know about. And you can only listen to so many friggin' Refreshments and Gin Blossoms tunes.

Bart Applewhite: Yeah, you can't say ska is fresh, but it's a fresh sound compared to what you hear on the radio. I mean, you can play in front of a lot of drunk rich people in Sun Valley, Idaho, and they'll love you.

Jesse Ribyat: I'd also say it bonds a lot of the race gaps and age groups together, believe it or not. Also, it has a dance beat so it draws a lot of women. And when you've got women, you've got men.

NT: How has the scene changed?
JR: In the '80s, it was way more mod. There were strict rules for fashion and the kids were really hard-core as far as the two-tone, rude-boy and the mod look. But now it's just a large mix of people.

DS: I went to see No Doubt here in '87 and there were about 100 people there. Everybody was wearing three-button suits and Docs. The girls were way mod. Tons of scoots [scooters]. The scene was really small but tight and hard-core. A lot of them grew out of it. A lot of them stayed interested. Hell, I'm still interested, but you don't see me in a suit except for when we're onstage. It's not as fashion-conscious anymore. Now it's attracting anybody.

NT: So who's going to the shows now?
DS: It's everyone. Frat guys to gutter punks.
BA: My grandparents even came to a show.

DS: Yeah, it's weird when you play those occasional gigs where nobody knows who the hell you are, and it turns out to be a bunch of old people. But they like it. I've never been told, "You guys play noisy, loud crap."

NT: How are the old-school ska fans taking all this?
DS: If I was 18 right now, I'd hate what was going on. At that age, it's like, "This is my thing and now it's getting popular and everybody's moving in."

BA: Old-school traditionalists are a bigger problem in California where they have a bigger traditional scene. Sometimes, the old schoolers like to get up in front on the stage, cross their arms and act pissed off.

NT: How does the current ska scene in Arizona compare with the rest of the country?

JR: In general, for having just three major bands in the state, I hate to say it, but I think it's better than a lot of other cities.

BA: Four years ago, there were 150 ska bands in America. Now, in California, there's 150 [ska bands] alone. A lot of them are just following what they're hearing, but we've all come from pretty weird musical backgrounds. Four years ago, I didn't know what ska was. I heard Fishbone use the word "ska," but I didn't know what the word really meant.

DS: Ska bands are a dime a dozen across the country. Here, you've got three very quality bands that are definitely straight ska bands. But my background is punk rock. I really don't know how the fuck I ended up playing ska.

JR: (Laughing) Well, you just have that ska look, Dave.
NT: What about the reputation for fighting at ska shows?
DS: You see an occasional fight. But nine times out of ten, the people who are fighting are the 21-and-ups who have had a few to drink. I never see the kids start brawls. And I hate to stereotype that reputation as a skinhead thing, but back in the late '80s, you could get the shit kicked out of you just for looking at their girl. There doesn't seem to be any of that anymore.

BA: I saw a couple kids fighting at one show; it was a pretty respectable fight. They had their fists in the air and they were dancing around, actually boxing.

NT: Do the younger kids today get it, the whole scene?
DS: The first time we ever played was in Tucson. Everyone was in a full-on mosh pit. But they didn't know any better.

JR: A lot more people know how to skank now, as opposed to two years ago. Whatever skankin' is now--it's so different these days. But it's definitely not a mosh-pit atmosphere.

NT: Describe skankin'.
JR: It's a lot of different things really. It's evolved, everybody has their own style. How would you guys describe skankin'?

DS: Knees in the air.
BA: It's a twist but with the jumpin' and runnin'.
BA: It's just like the Macarena.
JR: No. Please, no.

NT: Why are a lot of people turning off to local alternative and on to ska?
JR: If you look at it from the standpoint of a musician, it's just better music. The songwriting is of better quality and it's got a lot more diversity to it.

DS: You could do a ska song that's intro, verse, chorus, solo, verse, chorus, outro . . .

BA: Hey, that's one of our songs!
DS: . . . and that's a pretty damned boring tune if you're playing two guitars, a bass and drums. If you have a two- or three-piece horn section you can totally diversify the sound and do so much more with it.

NT: But wouldn't you enjoy acting miserable, playing typical alternative music?

DS: No way. You just hit the nail on the head. We write some songs about being a total drunken fool, down and out lying in the gutter and nobody wants to hear about that. But when you put a horn line to it and a beat, it's just fucking fun. It turns into a funny tune instead of something depressing.

NT: Do you see ska as being more culturally rich than mainstream music?
DS: Definitely. There's so much more roots to it. Ska has been all over and it's evolved each step of the way.

BA: It started in Jamaica, then went to Europe and now it's in the United States, and Jamaican ska started from American R&B in the first place.

JR: It's picked something up each time it's gone from one country to another, and you can always recognize something from the previous wave. Currently, it's taking on a punk-rock influence.

NT: Is there anything unique about Arizona ska bands?
DS: It seems like you have a huge pocket of ska in the Midwest that has a metal sound to it. The East Coast is a lot more traditional. The West Coast is a mix of traditional and punk influences. And I don't know--what the hell is the difference here?

Dave Neil: We don't want to be either one, but we're closer to the West Coast. So, I guess the scales are tipping in that direction.

DS: Ska was such a wasteland in this state that we got to each develop our own styles. A lot of ska bands around the country really pocket themselves into one genre.

BA: None of us followed another band. We each started a ska band and came up with our own sound.

NT: Are there any problems trying to play out in Arizona?
DN: Do you have another tape?
JR: Yeah, we've gotten shot down in the past and we haven't gotten nearly the attention that we should--especially for the draw that we get.

DS: You can do what you can do locally. Your goal is to get out and be heard . . . Unlike the West Coast, in Arizona you can say "ska show," and people will come because they want to know more about it. In California, they want to know what kind of ska it is first.

DN: If you put a ska band in Arizona with no horns, you're gonna have a lot of pissed-off people. Where in L.A., you could probably pass off Rancid as a ska band.

JR: But I don't mind saying that half the reason there is a scene around here is because it was built around these three local bands. If it wasn't for us, the public wouldn't know who the national acts were.

BA: It seems like people still don't know. We're on tour and people ask, "What kind of music do you play?"

"Ska."
"No, no. What kind of music do you play?"
"Ska."
"Oh, Scotch? Okay, Scottish music!

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