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Blue Ska Ahead

All stories have a beginning, but if the story is about ska music, it's hard to say just when and where that is.

In America, ska music began in 1982 with the Toasters, a multiracial group of Manhattan hepcats who introduced U.S. audiences to the frenetic mix of American R&B and Jamaican folk in lower-east-side clubs like A7 (now a grocery store) and CBGB, where the band cut its teeth on weeknights.

"People had no idea at all what we were doing," says Toasters founder Rob "Bucket" Hingley. "It wasn't until 1986 that things really got jumping in New York, and ska spread across the States from there."

As the popularity of ska in America has grown, so has the misconception that ska is an offshoot of reggae. It's not. Reggae came from ska. Where ska came from, however, is a matter of interpretation.

On the one hand, ska music is timeless, a direct descendant of the African tribal rhythms transported to Jamaica along with the slaves brought there by Spanish and British colonists.

On the other hand, ska didn't really jell into an independent form until the early '60s, when Jamaican musicians started to blend American R&B--which had dominated Jamaica's pop-music scene since the mid-'40s, when Jamaicans started receiving the clear signal of a New Orleans R&B station on their radios--with Mento, a topical, highly erotic Jamaican folk music similar to calypso that had been the most popular music on the island until R&B washed ashore.

Formative bands such as the Skatalites--who gave ska its name--sliced R&B's shuffle rhythm to an abrupt series of off-beats, kept the horn sections, turned up the heat on the tempo and liberally spiced the whole dish with Mento's tropical flavors.

It was a faster, happier music for a faster, happier time. Jamaica had finally gained its independence from England in 1962, and the period of newfound freedom and optimism that followed was a catalyst for ska's up-tempo, bouncy vibe.

Shortly after ska took over the dance halls of Jamaica, it jumped to the nightclubs of Britain. Jamaicans had just started to immigrate to England in large numbers, and they brought their native music with them. A lot of British kids got into ska in a hurry, scouring record stores for the import-only albums from the former colony island. Recognizing the market potential, a producer named Chris Blackwell founded Island Records in 1964. The label's first ska release, a single by Millie Small called "My Boy Lollipop," was a huge hit.

A couple weeks after Small's record came out, 9-year-old Rob Hingley made a trip to his local record shop for a historic purchase. "I bought 'My Boy Lollipop,' and that was it for me," says Hingley. "My older brother discovered ska, too, and he was into it through the late '60s, so I grew up on the stuff."

Ska flourished in England throughout the '70s and the advent of reggae, which developed out of ska as Jamaican bands started to phase out horn sections and mellow their rhythms to slower, steadier progressions--a response to the sobering national mood as the fledgling nation fell on hard financial times.

Meanwhile, in England, the underground ska scene had joined forces with another outlaw-music culture--the punk rockers. The alliance was more for political reasons--to protest intolerance and watch one another's backs--than musical ones, but the marriage produced a new form of ska called "two-tone." Ska with a rock-steady rhythm that leaned heavily on the old-school dance-hall stylings of the legendary Jamaican deejay Prince Buster, two-tone carried a wickedly catchy beat and a stringent message of antiracism.

"The back end of the '70s was an exciting time for underground music in England," says Hingley. "At the same time that you had punk bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, there were ska bands like the Specials and Madness. All this was happening at the same time, and skas and punks all started going to the same shows."

Hingley moved from England to New York City and formed the Toasters in 1981--the band's name refers to the tradition of Jamaican dance-hall deejays chanting or "toasting" over the music (a prototype for rap music), not the home appliance. The band's current lineup is guitar, bass and drums with a trumpet, sax and trombone horn section. "We've got me, a Jamaican guy and five Yanks," says Hingley.

The Toasters put out their first recording, a seven-inch called Beat Up, in 1983. But it wasn't until the 1985 Recriminations EP, produced by rocker and ska fan Joe Jackson, that an American ska recording received national distribution.

Ska in this country has been on a slow, steady rise ever since, and seems to have accumulated a critical mass of underground audience support. Last month, the San Francisco ska outfit Skankin' Pickle sold out large venues in Tempe and Tucson with negligible radio or MTV support, and both Billboard and Alternative Press magazines recently named ska the next big scene.

"I'd say it's the new big scene right now," says Hingley, who picks the Pietasters, a ska group from Washington, D.C., as the band to watch. "We just played a show at a zoo in New Jersey, where we drew a huge audience made up purely of high school kids who normally don't get to see the shows. Ska audiences have traditionally been a bit older, but now even the kids are into it."

Rancid, a pop-punk band with ska leanings, made a splash on MTV and the charts last year with the hit album And Out Come the Wolves, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a "ska-core" outfit, opened the Lollapalooza main stage last year, paying public tribute to the Toasters on several occasions.

"Those bands are right on the cusp of the hard-core movement and they're incorporating ska music into what they do, but I think it's a stretch of the imagination to call either Rancid or the Bosstones a ska band," says Hingley. "They're basically hard-core bands with a ska influence, but there's a lot of pure ska bands out there in a well-organized noncommercial movement."

Ironically, as the ska scene in America has flowered, the one in England has dried to a husk. The main problem, Hingley says, is a lack of the label support for ska that originally gave the music its commercial kick start in England.

Hingley started his own label, Moon Records, in 1984 to press and issue early Toasters recordings. "We kept the label mostly for ourselves for several years, then really started putting our shoulder into it in 1990, when we realized that ska was taking off and no other labels were on top of the situation," says Hingley.

Moon is now America's premier ska indie, with a roster of 30-plus bands that includes such notables as the Scofflaws, Let's Go Bowling, and Spring Heeled Jack. Moon was also the home of the Dance Hall Crashers, one of the best-known ska bands in the country, until the Crashers jumped ship to a division of MCA Records two years ago, sparking a war of words between the band and its former label that carries on to this day.

"It was not a very pleasant transition," says Hingley. "It's amazing and quite sad what happens to some people when they see money. We could have held out for more money, but we basically just gave [the Crashers] their last record for Moon and told them to go away."

Hingley's street cred in the ska scene was cemented by his decision last year to walk away from a deal with Mercury Records because the major label wouldn't let him keep using the independent distributors who had supported his efforts for more than a decade.

"We have to keep the ska scene tight as it gets bigger," says Hingley. "It's really the last form of alternative music that hasn't been exploited by the majors, so we can't go stabbing one another in the back.

"As it stands, ska is growing, but it's still underground and unspoiled, and I hope it stays that way even as it breaks. Because while this is fun music that's good to dance to, it has a serious side. It has roots and culture. This is not some bullshit pop music that people are being hyped to buy. It's the real stuff."

The Toasters are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, May 21, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Spring Heeled Jack, and Kongo Shock. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse

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