The History of Ska

Ska is truly a Jamaican contribution to the music world, along with rocksteady and reggae, to which it is a precursor. 

Ska combines other musical genres, such as Caribbean mento, calypso, American jazz, and rhythm and blues. It distinguishes itself from the different genres because of its “walking” bass lines, accented with rhythms on the offbeat. Since its development, ska has been one of the most popular Jamaican music styles that have found success at home and abroad.

The origins of the word “ska”

There are several theories regarding the origins of the word “ska.” One of the most popular theories suggests that “ska” is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of the guitar made. Another theory suggests that “ska” is short for skavoovie, which double bassist Cluett Johnson used to greet his friends. Keyboardist Jackie Mitto, offers another explanation: musicians referred to the rhythm as “Staya Staya.”

How did ska originate and become popular?

The origins of ska began after World War II, where Jamaicans bought radios in increasing numbers. Thus, they were able to listen to rhythm and blues (R&B) music from the USA. The early recordings of R&B artists, such as Fats Domino and Rosco Gordon, would eventually influence the “behind-the-beat” feel of ska and reggae. 

Eventually, the Jamaicans began to develop their own music genres as the supply of previously unheard R&B and jump blues began to dry up. 

After Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1962, ska began to flourish in this period. Many Jamaicans began to establish “sound systems” — a robust recording scene in the country composed of DJ’s, music engineers and MC’s playing ska and other Jamaican music genres like rocksteady and reggae. The sound system scene became an important part of Jamaican history and culture.

Most of the ska singers were backed by a group of self-taught musicians who also recorded ska instrumentals, going by the name of Skalites.

Until Jamaica’s ratification of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic works, the country did not honor music copyright protection from other countries. This led to several cover songs and interpretations, the most famous being “My Boy Lollipop” by Jamaican singer Millie Small, which became the country’s first commercial hit outside of Jamaica, with over seven million copies sold. It was covered by a 14-year-old American singer Barbie Gaye.

With the growing popularity of ska, other Jamaican artists would have success in recording instrumental ska versions of American and British pop music, from Beatles songs to Motown hits.

With a growing West Indian population in the UK, it became a natural secondary market for Jamaican recordings. A number of ska artists began to find favor with the stylish “Mod” during the 1960s, giving ska a niche in the UK pop scene. By 1968, the prevailing musical style in Jamaica was shifting. The transitional era of ska and rocksteady gave way to reggae in the 1970s.

The “2 Tone” Ska

The 2-Tone ska was developed in Coventry, England, the UK, in the late 1970s. Known as the “second wave” of ska, the 2 Tone ska fuses the elements of Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies and punk rock, and new wave textures. 

The 2 Tone ska derives its name from 2 Tone Records, a record label founded by Jerry Dammers of the 2 Tone ska revival group The Specials, in 1979. The term also refers to the desire to ease racial tensions in the U.K. Many 2 Tone ska bands formed during this era composed of multiracial members, such as The Specials, The Beat, The Selecter, and others.

While the 2 Tone ska’s commercial success was limited to the UK, it influenced subsequent ska movements, such as the third wave ska and ska punk that were developed across the other side of the Atlantic.

Third wave ska, ska punk and post-third wave ska

The third wave ska developed and flourished in the punk scene in the US during the early 1980s. It fuses traditional ska elements with guitar riffs and big horn sections.

The third wave ska was closely tied to ska punk, another sub-genre of ska that combines traditional ska and hardcore punk. It became commercially successful in the US during the 1990s. Third-wave ska and ska punk bands such as No Doubt, Fishbone, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake, The Uptones, Goldfinger, Blue Meanies, The O.C. Overtones, Reel Big Fish, The Slackers, Suicide Machines, and many others brought the subculture to mainstream success and popularity during this era. There was also a significant ska scene in other countries, such as Japan.

The possibility of the “fourth wave ska”?

By the 21st century, ska began to wane in popularity, but there were exceptions. British group Captain SKA enjoyed domestic chart success with their No. 4 hit “Liar Liar GE2017” in 2017. In the US, the ska punk group The Interrupters enjoyed some success with their single “She’s Kerosene,” which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard’s “Alternative Songs Chart.” In January 2021, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones released their latest single, the eight-minute-long number “The Final Parade.” By then, several publications began to wonder aloud whether these latest events would lead to the emergence of the “fourth wave ska.” Who knows? Only time can tell.