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The History of British Ska Music
by Alex Cosper (12/2/13)

Ska music has its roots in Jamaica, but the UK played a huge role in its popularity. The nature of ska is that it's communal party music that mixes in social messages in a subtle way. But one of the keys to ska is that the message never gets in the way of the infectious rhythm, which comprises jazz, r&b and sped up reggae. The staccato guitar or keyboard sound gives it a heavily pronounced dance sound, although ska traces back further in history than reggae.

The earliest ska records appeared in the 1950s in Jamaica. One of the earliest examples of a ska beat was the song "Louie Louie" written by American r&b artist Richard Berry in 1957, although the song was not an American hit until 1963 by The Kingmen and was mainly regarded as early garage rock due to its rough performance. The Perry recording of the fifties was closer to the choppy sound of Jamaican r&b that would later define ska in both the Caribbean and in England. In between reggae and ska in terms of tempo was rocksteady, which delevoped in the sixties.

Following the recordings of Bob Marley and other reggae artists of the sixties, The Beatles helped popularize the ska sound with their 1968 recording of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which sounded closer to ska than reggae. Another ska-flavored hit that year was "The Israelites" by Desmond Dekker from Jamaica. The record hit number one in England and helped influence what became known as British ska music. Dekker, who moved to London in 1969, was released on Island Records, which was founded by Chris Blackwell, who was originally from London. Blackwell launched the label in 1959 in Jamaica but moved it to London in 1962, the same year that Jamaica gained independence from the UK. The label went on to play an important role in the development of reggae and the career of Bob Marley.

Jamaica had been and continued to be influenced in the sixties by British music, particularly The Beatles. Early evidence of ska development traces to Byron Lee & The Dragonaires, Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff, who all performed ska music at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. The Dragonaires were originally from Jamaica and were one of the most seminal bands in the history of ska, which they began to perform in the early sixties with covers of standards such as "Over the Rainbow" under the name The Ska Kings. They appeared as the hotel band in the 1961 film Dr. No.

In the late seventies the UK had a reniewed interest in ska as the English 2 Tone ska sound began to gain prominence. The music featured a heavily accented upstroke of third beats of triplets played in 4/4 time, giving it an an offbeat dance rhythm that was influenced by Jamaican calypso music. Other forms of ska put heavy accents on the second and fourth beats, similar to 2 step or cut time music. The 2 Tone sound grew out of Coventry, blending Jamaican ska with punk chord progressions, which were borrowed from American r&b and rock and roll.

Jerry Dammers started 2 Tone Records in 1979 to give his band The Specials a plaform. The label went on to sign The Selecter, Madness and The Beat, who each put out their early recordings on the label before moving on to other labels in the early eighties. The 2 Tone sound embraced messages of racial equality, as many of the bands included multiracial lineups. Some of the early hits of the 2 Tone sound included "Ghost Town" by The Specials and "Save It For Later" by The Beat, who were known as The English Beat in America.

Two influential bands who mixed elements of reggae and ska in their music were The Police and The Clash. Other early pioneers of the British ska sound were Amazulu and The Bodysnatchers. In the 21st century bands that have continued the ska tradition have included Advantage, The Ballistics, Capdown, The Dance Brigade, Fight the Bear, Gentleman's Dub Club, Kids Can't Fly, Lightyear and The Restarts who came on the scene in the 1990s.

Check out information on the following British music scenes:

Bangor, UK
Belfast, UK
Birmingham, UK
Cambridge, UK
Cardiff, UK
Coventry, UK

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