The music genre ska has a rich history that shows multiple cultural forces at work, including hybridization, cultural appropriation, and creolization. The genre has evolved and developed over several decades and across three continents, resulting in multiple cultural transfers between Jamaica, the UK, and the United States. Each of the three waves of ska were products of cultural hybridity by way of migration and globalization.
Ska originated in Kingston, Jamaica in the wake of its independence from Great Britain in 1962. It began as an upbeat, celebratory music in light of their new independence and in an effort to establish their identity. Ska is especially unique for its upstroke, or the emphasis on the afterbeat rather than the downbeat. It is also characterized by a walking baseline, fast tempos, and horns — often trumpet, trombone or saxophone. This first wave of ska was influenced by Caribbean mento, calypso, and American jazz and rhythm and blues. The unique rhythms and tempos in both mento and calypso are thought to have roots in the plantations where Jamaican slaves worked in the eighteenth century. Much of the music played during this time was inspired by African drumming styles which often emphasized the afterbeat. Following their emancipation from slavery in 1834, Jamaica experienced a religious revival that resulted in new genres of spiritual music which “used African-derived rituals and music made from body sounds like clapping or stamping” (Kauppila 76). To add to the ritualistic nature of the music, they would use their breath as percussion which induced a trance-like state. This breath-as-percussion can be heard in early ska songs.
Early ska came to be partly as a result of war, which moved people around the globe. During World War II, American soldiers were stationed in Jamaica and would often exchange their records from home for alcohol, marijuana, or sex. Many of these records were jazz and R&B which greatly appealed to the Jamaicans and heavily influenced the sound of ska. These records were also reached by Jamaicans via southern American radio stations, further exposing Jamaicans to jazz and R&B records by artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Fats Domino. Radio granted access to international music to those without sound systems at home or the means to buy records, thus widening the flow of culture, essentially working as a tool of globalization and making room for cultural hybridity. Radio was a push toward modernity, allowing music to travel even if people couldn’t.
The youth in poor Jamaican neighborhoods, unable to find jobs, became angry and acted out as a result, often in violent or disruptive ways. They adopted the look of American jazz musicians and characters from gangster films, dressing in suits and porkpie hats, eventually claiming the name “Rude Boys.” Some of these Rude Boys later emigrated to England, guiding ska into the second wave.
The second wave of ska began in 1970’s Britain as Caribbean immigrants moved to England in search of work, bringing with them ska, reggae, and Rude Boy culture. The 1970’s were a time of moral panic for English youth: they began to question the social, political, and economic hierarchies that structured the system they lived within. This marked the rise of 1970’s punk. Early punk incorporated anarchist and nihilistic values into their lyrics, dress, and general behavior, actively resisting everything that society expected of them. It was a reaction against mainstream culture and a very strong political statement. Much of the angst came from the feeling of England moving toward a future that the youth did not identify with nor want to be involved in. This angst was similar to that of Rude Boys in the aftermath of Jamaica’s independence from Great Britain.
This second wave was characterized by energetic vocals and lyrical themes of unity, street culture, tolerance, and racial integration. Still emphasizing the afterbeat and maintaining R&B tempos, the English introduced punk-influenced chords and tempo into the genre, creating a much tighter and edgier sound. Both the first and second wave of ska stood on the foundation of identity and shared political hues in their lyrics. The music promoted racial unity at a time when racial tensions were high in the UK: many bands had multiracial lineups and sported black and white checkers on their clothing and album covers to further promote racial integration. By this time, ska was a product of cultural hybridity. Hybridization emphasizes the mixing of cultures and their similarities, not the differences or inherent separateness, resulting in a sort of “montage and collage” consisting of “‘cross-cultural plots of music, clothing, behavior…body language, or…visual communication, spreading multi-ethnic and multi-centric patterns’” (Nederveen Pieterse 41). This is exactly what ska embodied and represented.
Reggae, a genre that branched off from ska in the 1960’s, was appropriated by white artists during ska’s second wave. English bands like The Police, Culture Club and Madness were influenced by ska and reggae tempos and eventually became the ‘white face’ of reggae in the UK: The Police’s 1979 album “Reggata de Blanc” roughly translates to ‘white people reggae.’ Some argue that this subgenre of ska contributed to ‘cultural dilution’ because it “‘inflicted reggae rhythms but not its content…’[thus] exemplif[ying] a commercialization which ‘appealed less to the audience’s sense of social inequity and utopianism [than] it did to its sense of what was aesthetically pleasing’” (Alleyne 23). Moreover, “this process [of white exploitation] has more frequently produced a detachment of reggae from its original lyrical, instrumental, and social contexts, thus creating a misrepresentative pseudo reggae manifestation to be consumed by the mainstream audience” (Alleyne 20). In this instance, white reggae bands borrowed the music from black reggae artists like Bob Marley but did not keep the same spiritual content that characterized reggae, like hope, struggle, and activism. What’s more is reggae became closely associated with the Rastafarian religion, a faith that many of the white reggae bands did not follow. This is a prime example of hybridity causing a cultural “loss of purity, wholeness, authenticity” (Nederveen Pieterse 41), which begs the question of power relations and cultural appropriation, especially when a white band borrows from black culture during a time of high racial tensions. Nederveen Pieterse describes hybridity functioning as “part of a power relationship between center and margin, hegemony and minority, and indicates a blurring, destabilization, or subversion of that hierarchical relationship” (Nederveen Pieterse 42). This ‘transcultural cut-and-paste’ was certainly relevant in white reggae in the 1970’s and remains so today.
The third wave of ska arose in the United States in the 1990’s, favoring punk chords but maintaining the classic ska afterbeat, hence its name ‘ska punk.’ Orange County, California was the home of many ska artists during this time like Reel Big Fish, Sublime, and No Doubt, who dominated the genre and alternative radio stations at the time; however, most of the mainstream ska bands during the third wave were made up of all-white lineups, with the lyrical content varying among bands: some sang about drug abuse and addiction; others about feminism; some about sex and love. Most ska punk bands threw in homages to the origins of the genre, referencing earlier bands or, as No Doubt did with their 2001 album Rocksteady, traveling to Kingston to record their music.
Ska’s history and influences, from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, cross cultural borders and political barriers. It has certainly “unsettled the introverted concept of culture that underlies romantic nationalism, racism, ethnicism” (Nederveen Pieterse 52) as it is made up of different musical elements from different parts of the world, crossing national borders by way of globalization (i.e. radio) and migration (i.e. war and immigration), thus disrupting the notion that cultures are homogenous.
- Alleyne, M. (2000). White reggae: Cultural dilution in the record industry. Popular Music and Society, 24(1), 15–30. doi:10.1080/03007760008591758
- An Introduction to Ska Music. (2017, October 30). Retrieved from https://www.musical-u.com/learn/ska-music/
- Kauppila, P. (2006, June). From Memphis to Kingston: An Investigation into the Origin … Retrieved from http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=lib_pub
- Pieterse, J. N. (n.d.). Globalization as Hybridization. Sociology of Globalization, 39–60. doi:10.4324/9780429493089–5
- Rodrick, S. (2019, June 06). Ska story: The sound of angry young England. Retrieved from https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/ska-story-the-sound-of-angry-young-england/Content?oid=875398