February 21, 2011

Ska Founders Rolling into Ithaca

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The Skatalites, the band that gave birth to ska, are coming to Castaways this Saturday night. During the 50s and 60s the band was at the cutting edge of Jamaican music, incorporating elements of big band swing, jazz and American R&B into an irresistible concoction of toe-tapping rhythm and catchy melodic hooks. After years covering popular American and British songs at Jamaican hotels, The Skatalites had used their heterogeneous musical influences to develop a sound all their own. A purely instrumental group, the band spent years backing up top vocalists such as Jimmy Cliff, Toots and The Maytals and a certain dreadlocked, joint-toting, peace-preaching Rastafarian, whose face is hanging in an estimated 88 percent of college dorm rooms worldwide. Despite accreditation often going to vocalists, The Skatalites managed to mark their territory with the not-so-subtly titled albums “Foundation Ska” and “Nucleus of Ska.”

From Ska’s Jamaican origins, the genre’s evolution  has been dictated by a convergence with rock music, specifically during the late 90s punk rock movement. The subgenres created by this convergence — listed both chronologically and in order of ascending angsty-ness — are “2Tone” (The Specials, Madness),“ska-punk” (Reel Big Fish, Mighty Mighty Bosstones) and “ska-core” (Operation Ivy, Big D and the Kids Table). “2-Tone” is considered “second wave” ska and is more in touch with the genre’s big-band components. “Third Wave Ska,” including ska-punk, peaked in popularity in the late 90s and was marked by a departure from politically charged lyrics and clean, big band simplicity. Punk rock’s influence upped the guitar-to-horn ratio and guided a shift in lyrical content, focusing more on feelings of restlessness and suburban confinement. Bands like the Aquabats and the Flaming Tsunamis lead this notable sub-category of ska-punk, which maintains its popularity today. These bands draw much of their popularity from memorable comedic appeal, turning Ska into a goofy caricature of its former self.

This evolution of Ska has landed it shockingly far from its Jamaican origins; however, the existence of these origins remains undeniable. The “skank” guitar rhythm — up stroking and offbeat — was critical for the creation of the genre and is an element that defines modern Ska sub-genres. By incorporating this unique guitar rhythm into popular American and British genres, The Skatellites became instrumental in the genesis of original ska, or as it was aptly dubbed on their 1997 reissue, “foundation ska.”

The Skatellites, persistently on the frontier of musical progress, were also key contributors to the creation of “rocksteady,” a genre that resembles ska more than other successors. Rocksteady strays from the consistently bouncy skank guitar rhythm in favor of a more broken feel. The horns of rocksteady are also dimmed slightly; perhaps marking the beginning of big band’s fade from this musical lineage.

Attendees of Saturday’s show at Castaways will not be watching the actual founding members of the Skatalites. The Skatalites have always had an evolving cast, and consistent with their tradition of progressivism, their genius has always hinged on musical ingenuity in the now, as opposed to any sort of obligation to emulate the men who established the legacy of the Skatalite name. They are, nonetheless, still playing their classics. Guns of Navarone, for example, has been a crowd favorite for over forty years. Their songs still maintain their classic feel, but their sound has been undeniably embellished in accordance with new musical demands — with the keyboard playing a more influential role and the breathy horns of the 60s exchanging punchy bounces, a characteristic of modern ska sub-genres. The 90s Skatalites (still with two founding members), were nominated twice for the Grammy Award of Best Reggae Album (1996, 1997). Following the departure of the remaining founders, the band contributed to Toots Hibbert’s album True Love, which won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2004.

The Itals, a Jamaican reggae vocal group formed in the 1960s, will be Opening for The Skatalites. The trio’s smooth harmonies should nicely compliment the powerful Skatalites instrumentals that will follow. The Itals have been receiving acclaim from reggae critics for years, but their success was greatly eclipsed after their 1970s glory years by other reggae vocal groups such as Culture and The Wailing Souls. However, they didn’t fly entirely under the radar; in 1987 their album Rasta Philosophy was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album.

Whatever your musical taste, it is probable that your genre of preference has been touched in someway by Jamaican music of the 60s and 70s. With The Skatalites, Castaways will play host to history. If you didn’t know, now you know. Don’t miss out.

Original Author: Nathan Tailleur