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What is Ska?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ska is a musical form blending Jamaican music like calypso with jazz, blues or rock. Most people are familiar with ska music produced in the 1980s by bands like the Specials and Madness. However, the form significantly predates the 1980s. It is thought to have developed as far back as the 1930s.

Reggae is often thought to be the precursor to ska, but in fact ska influenced the development of reggae. The earliest versions combined the rhythms of New Orleans Jazz with the use of Jamaican instruments. Piano and guitar were also used, and the music was characteristically upbeat. Stress is on the half beat rather than the traditional count of jazz and rock, where the stress is directly on the beat. This rhythm is also reflected in reggae music.

First wave ska music includes the work of Prince Buster, Byron Lee, and Peter Tosh, who would later be known for his contributions to reggae. In 1964 at the World’s Fair in New York, Prince Buster, Peter Tosh, and Byron Lee performed, exposing America to this music, which had previously been mostly heard only in the West Indies.

As rock music developed, ska versions of music by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were often recorded. This resulted in significant changes to ska, creating a musical form that would be deemed alternative rather than mainstream. The addition of rock and roll clearly influenced second wave ska of the late 70s and 80s.

The British label, 2 Tone records, recorded most ska music of the second age. The music retained the joyful beat of the first wave, and was a pleasing antithesis to punk rock and new wave. Most lyrics celebrated the silly. Vocal tracts were often a challenge to record and perform, as they required very quick verbalizations, similar to tongue twisters. The English Beat’s, “Mirror in the Bathroom,” is nearly impossible to sing without a lithe tongue. Also, virtually all bands of the second wave included talented horn sections, differing much from other instrumental music of the time.

Ska can also be credited with inspiring rap music, as it included toasting, which is spoken lyrics based on the rhythms of the music. If everything but the percussion elements of a song were removed, toasting would sound almost exactly like rapping, but subject matter tends to be light.

Third wave ska occurred in the late 1990s and includes music from bands like Less than Jake, and The Fish Bones. The Third wave is often harder hitting, incorporating punk rhythms. Racial equality and tolerance are characteristic of the art form.

Interest in second wave ska has reemerged, and it is quite common to hear these tunes on commercials. The television channel VH1 may be in part credited with this new interest. The channel recently aired a show on attempting to restore the band, The English Beat. They were not able to get all of the English Beat members to return to record a song, but since the airing of the show, several members of the original band are touring together, and recently toured in the US.

It is truly difficult to listen to ska and not feel like dancing. Since most of the lyrics are silly, fun and relatively tame, introducing this style of music to children is often a great way to teach kids to dance, as they usually cannot resist dancing to the infectious rhythms. Most second wave bands have reproduced their music on DVDs, or have original tunes available for downloading on the Internet.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon122237 — On Oct 27, 2010

From the music was born the rude boy-Skinhead-Mod.

By anon71178 — On Mar 17, 2010

The correct name for the band named after Less Than Jake is Fishbone.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia...
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