Ska music has had an enduring popularity since it was first played in the 1960s. Perhaps it has something to do with the good-hearted, anti-racist message that many ska songs carry. Perhaps it is because of how eminently danceable it is. Regardless of the reasons for its popularity, ska deserves your attention. The story of ska is the story of cultures colliding, moving, and finding themselves. Here is a very brief guide.
Ska music began on the island of Jamaica, where it predated reggae and rocksteady. It was born in the early 1960s. Coincidentally, this was around the time that Jamaica declared its independence from the British Empire, and a great deal of self-identification and upheaval was taking place on the island.
Ska took influence from earlier genres of island music. Calypso was especially influential, with its laid-back and heavy melody style. The first Ska bands like Toots and the Maytals took Calypso music and made it far more danceable. A walking bassline, hopping beat, and plenty of horns and saxophones set ska apart. If you are looking to start out, you can do a great deal worse than beginning to play online saxophone lessons. Learning from your peers, however, is still the best way.
Ska music dominated the Jamaican music scene in the early 1960s, but this dominance began to fade – with younger people becoming more interested in reggae.
The second wave of ska music gained traction in the United Kingdom. The UK had a large Jamaican population. The post-war government had encouraged Jamaican workers to make the long trip to England by boat to help fill huge gaps in the job market. Racism was rife, and far-right organizations like the National Front terrorized immigrant youths. Young, rebellious English musicians in the 1970s took inspiration from Jamaican ska and rocksteady and created numerous bands that mixed English and Jamaican styles and musicians during the 1970s and 80s.
This new wave was headed up by the 2 Tone label. This label was explicitly anti-racist. It provided a platform for young British and Jamaican musicians to speak out against the often absurd levels of prejudice that permeated British society. Classic bands like The Selecter and Madness released seminal ska albums on 2 Tone. British 2 Tone Ska had a distinctively witty lyrical content that mixed perfectly with the bouncing rhythm traditional to the Jamaican ska style.
The third wave of ska music blossomed in the United States during the late 80s and early 90s. Originating in the skate punk scene, third wave ska is notable faster and heavier than its predecessors. Bands like Agent Orange and Streetlight Manifesto became immensely popular, particularly with American teenagers. The Jamaican influence was probably felt less by third-wave ska musicians, who were largely influenced by 2 Tone classic punk music. Nevertheless, the influence of those original 1960s Jamaican musicians working during independence can still be heard in the new music, if you listen closely enough.