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Telling the story of ska

Published:Sunday | November 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Don Drummond
Heather Augustyn - Contributed
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Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

Heather Augustyn would have listened to heartland rockers like John Mellencamp while growing up in Indiana, but her musical taste was never limited to rock and roll. This Midwest girl was hooked on ska. Augustyn's passion for the sound musicologists call Jamaican jazz inspired her to write Ska: An Oral History, which has been released in the United States (US) by McFarland Publishers.

She told The Sunday Gleaner last week that though she has been listening to ska for more than 20 years, it was difficult to find any definitive work on this precursor to reggae.

"I had a hard time finding anything substantive about ska music, as it was typically treated as a prelude to reggae," she said. "I felt, as do the artistes and many fans, that ska is a genre in its own right."

Musical giants

Augustyn is a journalist with The Times of Northwest Indiana, the second largest newspaper in the state of Indiana. Like many Americans, she discovered ska in the 1990s when the beat caught on among mostly white college students.

She has seen some of the giants of the music live in concert, the biggest being the Skatalites, the band that put ska on the map in the early 1960s.

Augustyn also developed a fondness for new wave bands like The Specials, Madness and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones whose edgy, horn-hooked beats kept ska alive in US and European clubs during the 1980s and 1990s.

She managed to interview some of the greats for the book, including Doreen Schaffer, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Knibb, Roland Alphonso and Lester Sterling of the Skatalites, as well as singers Derrick Morgan, Toots Hibbert and Laurel Aitken.

Lee Thompson of Madness and Dicky Barrett of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones also gave their views on what drew them to ska.

Ska emerged in Kingston's clubs during the early 1960s with Morgan and Prince Buster two of its earliest stars. Millie Small is credited with breaking the beat internationally, courtesy of her 1964 monster hit, My Boy Lollipop.

Its most famous exponents, however, were The Skatalites, an all-star band that included the brilliant trombonist Don Drummond, keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, saxophonists Alphonso Sterling and Tommy McCook, drummer Lloyd Knibb, bass player Lloyd Brevett and trumpeter Johnny Moore.

Noted songs

The Skatalites recorded some of the genre's noted songs such as Eastern Standard Time, Freedom Sounds, Guns of Navarone and Confucius. By the mid-1960s, the music gave way to the slower rocksteady, though ska remained popular in Britain among working-class white youths called skinheads.

Ska enjoyed a strong revival in the 1980s and 1990s. The Skatalites reformed and resumed touring and recording. But it was platinum-selling American bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, 311, Rancid and Sublime that drew the biggest audiences.

Augustyn said Ska: An Oral History is not directed at a particular demographic.

"Ska is a musical form that appeals to all ages, all races and is popular all over the world," she said. "I would say that the book is important reading for any ska fan, any reggae fan, so they understand the true roots of the music."