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Ska: 1st Wave

A guide to the history of ska and how to find recordings of and information about ska music

History and Description

Ska is the name for the musical genre that emerged in Jamaica in the early 1960s. Considered by many to be the first truly indigenous Jamaican music, first wave ska is an amalgamation of American rhythm and blues, jazz, jump bands, calypso, and Jamaican mento combined with elements of traditional African drumming.

Ska was the predominant musical genre in Jamaica from around 1961-1965. Its rise to prominence coincided with the island’s independence and helped to foster a national Jamaican identity. "The popularity of […] ska was linked directly to a technology known in Jamaica as the 'sound system'. Sound systems were portable music systems on wheels; vans would carry high-fidelity playback equipment to neighborhood dances in Kingston" (King, Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control, p. 15). 

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Jamaican Sound System. Image courtesy of icono:Cluster

The music moved along at a frenetic pace and used staccato guitars to accentuate the off beats coupled with a double time shuffle rhythm. First wave ska was characterized by a driving horn section that usually consisted of at least a trombone, trumpet, and saxophone. The music was energetic, fast, and highly danceable. Ska may have sounded cheerful, "but it also expressed a musical angst rooted in the tenement houses and yards of West Kingston, a dilapidated area of open sewers, rampant unemployment, and rival political gangs" (King, Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control, p. 4). The juxtaposition of happy sounding music combined with socially conscious lyrics is a trait that has continually resurfaced throughout the history of ska.

Ska proliferated beyond Jamaica's borders and found an international audience. The ska sound made an impact in England where it was known as "blue beat". In America, ska debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, which featured performances by Jamaican ska legends Monty Morris, Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster and the Blues Busters, and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. 

By the mid 1960s ska began to decline in popularity and it was eventually superseded by rock steady and its successor, reggae. However, Jamaican ska had left its mark on popular music. The foundations had been established for the ska revivals that would eventually emerge all over the world. 

* Click on the links from the pull-down menu at the top of the screen for a list of influential artists and an annotated discography.

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