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Ska music serves as a bridge between 1960s Jamaican music, 1970s British dance music, and 1990s American punk music. It does this by fusing many musical influences to create a genre unique unto itself.

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What Is Ska?

Ska is a genre of music that combines Jamaican and Caribbean rhythms, punk rock energy, and horn sections. Together, these elements create an energetic, highly danceable style of music that has achieved off-and-on mainstream popularity.

Origins and Evolution of Ska

The largest waves of ska music occurred in distinct regions and time periods.

  • First-wave ska: The first wave took place in Jamaica in the early 1960s and occurred simultaneously with the country's declaration of independence from Britain. Jamaican musicians who had been raised on calypso, mento, and American jazz and R&B began experimenting with new rhythmic approaches to musical performances. These players became the first ska bands, including Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, and the Skatalites. Jamaican ska DJs and producers included Prince Buster, Duke Reid, and Clement "Coxsone" Dodd.
  • Second wave in the UK: The Jamaican ska scene faded in the late '60s, as reggae and rocksteady became the most popular genres in the country. However, ska enjoyed a popular surge in the UK in the late 1970s and early ’80s. This second wave of ska was led by the English record label 2 Tone, which released records by the English Beat, the Specials, and Bad Manners. Lyrics often focused on battling racism, promoting integration, and pushing back against Britain’s conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.
  • Second wave in the US: By the 1980s, some American groups had also caught ska's second wave, most notably the Toasters and Bim Skala Bim. Second wave ska incorporated both music and social messaging from Jamaicans.
  • Third-wave ska: This era was largely anchored in the United States in the 1990s, where ska's Jamaican and British foundation mixed with the pop punk genre that had gained a foothold in American music. Popular acts from the era include Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, Fishbone, Sublime, Less Than Jake, and Operation Ivy. Third-wave ska bands using distorted guitars, anthemic melodies, and a somewhat scaled back usage of horns are often grouped in the hybrid genres of ska-punk or ska-core.

Today, historic traditional ska, two-tone, and ska-punk groups have an international following. Contemporary artists perform in all styles of ska, contributing to what some have called a fourth wave.

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4 Characteristics of Ska Music

Throughout the history of ska music, several core elements have helped characterize the genre.

  1. Rock instruments plus horns: A typical ska band features guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and lead vocals. Some groups also use keyboards.
  2. Melodic tradeoff between singers and horn section: Ska songs often feature instrumental riffs played by their horn sections. These fill in the gaps between the sung vocals.
  3. 4/4 time signature: As a dance genre, ska is almost exclusively written in 4/4 time and is often played at a brisk pace. Drummers tend to emphasize the backbeat (beats two and four), and guitarists often make percussive stabs on beats two, three, and four. The bass guitar tends to be active, playing a mix of quarter notes and eighth notes.
  4. Lyrics focused on social justice: Particularly in first wave Jamaican ska and second wave British ska, lyrics focused on social justice, equity, and racial integration. Third wave ska has a wider array of lyrical topics, some of which have little do do with activism or social justice.

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