I’ve had a number of formative moments as a music appreciator and slavish devotee. Among the most important was a night in the early 90s when I was taken along to something called the Skavoovie Tour at a little bar in Ithaca, New York. I didn’t know what the hell that meant, but I figured it might be a good time.
God, it was. I was treated to the sounds of three great touring bands – The Scofflaws, Pietasters, and The Toasters – and a style of music that blew my doors down and shattered the windows for good measure.
It’s hard to put your finger on ska. Merriam-Webster defines it as “popular music of Jamaican origin that combines elements of traditional Caribbean rhythms and jazz.” AllMusic.com states: “Although structurally simple, ska has a bevy of influences, synthesizing American R&B, jump blues, Jamaican mento, calypso and other Caribbean styles, big-band swing, Afro-Cuban jazz, pocomania and other local religious folk music, and European ballroom dances.”
But that doesn’t really cover it. Its sound has changed and evolved over the years. Ska matured into rock steady for a while, but really became "noticed" (in the US, at least) when English bands like The Specials mixed in just enough rock and roll to give us the modern ska sound.
Ska relies on a staccato off-beat guitar rhythm for its signature (modern) sound. Think of a pick strumming a guitar: usually you get a down-strum sound and an up-strum sound, right? Now, with ska, on the down-strum sound, instead of letting all of the sound ring forth from the strings, the left hand (the fingers of which create the notes or chord: and with ska you get a LOT of chords) mutes the strings so you get a THWACK sound instead of an ordinary ringing sound. Then, on the up-stroke the full sound is let out.
Therefore, ska produces a thwack-chord thwack-chord thwack-chord sound, with the chords always filling up the off-beats.
Many ska bands utilize a horn section, though not always. The lead vocals are usually clear and melodic, with harmonizing backing vocals for support and texture.
A great example of this sound is on The Specials' "A Message to You Rudy," also one of the all-time classic ska songs.
Ska also combines wonderfully with a myriad of other styles. Take, for instance:
Latin Ska – King Chango is your must-listen here
Ska Punk – Check out Operation Ivy, Rancid, and Suicide Machines for starters
Ska Core – Ska and hardcore: Mighty Mighty Boss Tones and Voodoo Glow Skulls are the best in the business
Ska Lounge – Check out Mighty Mighty Boss Tones’ break-out LP “Let’s Face It”
Reggae Ska – For early influence sound with such classic bands as the Skatalites, check out a compilation LP entitled “Ska Island”
Jazzy Ska – Moon Records out of New York City is your bet here, with such acts as the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble and Pietasters
DB Note: it definitely doesn’t hurt to work the word “ska” into your band title if you want to start a ska band. To wit: Scofflaws, Skatalites, Mephiskapheles. I believe Alaska is still open, but I would need to check on that.