By Rebecca Bulnes
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If it seems like there's a ska show coming to South Florida every week, maybe it's because there is. For the last two years, ska bands from across the country -- from Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, practically everywhere but the music's homeland of Jamaica -- have made Miami and Fort Lauderdale regular stops on their tour circuits. And all of them have arrived thanks to Bob Slade, a local promoter who books bands for the Edge in Fort Lauderdale and other area clubs. He estimates that he's hosted about a hundred ska gigs since the summer of 1994, when Tampa's Magadog arrived for a date at Respectable Street Cafe in West Palm Beach. That's roughly one ska show a week for two solid years, and Slade claims all of them have racked up impressive attendance numbers, not to mention having filled one of the many gaps in the region's national touring scene.
"No one was doing any ska shows, but all these kids were bugging me about it for months," Slade recalls. "I had been doing pretty much nothing but punk shows, but the Magadog show pulled about 350 people on a Tuesday night. After that I was convinced that this is what I should be doing."
And do it he does. When there's nothing else going on in town -- when the worthwhile local bands are taking a weekend off or when there's no sign of an interesting national act within a 400-mile radius -- you can rest assured that a ska show will most likely be going on at the Edge. Skavoovie and the Epitones, the Pietasters, the Toasters, Less Than Jake, the Slackers, Spring Heeled Jack -- the list of players is virtually endless, their music an interchangeable variation on the Jamaican roots music that gave birth to rock steady and reggae, from the chanting vocals and skittering guitar riffs to the washes of organ and flourishes of zooming trombone and soaring trumpet.
Although ska has of late been making inroads on the national record charts via groups such as Goldfinger and No Doubt, the bands who have been making South Florida their home away from home are working further underground. Nearly all of them are affiliated with Moon Ska Records, an independent label based in New York City and founded by Toasters frontman Robert "Bucket" Hingley. Since its debut in 1983, Moon Ska has released about 100 discs, as well as distributed ska titles from labels based around the globe. Their catalogue is also crammed with merchandise -- T-shirts, posters, buttons, patches, fanzines, practically everything the young ska fan needs to look the part.
And sales, according to Hingley, are good. "We thought when we started the label that if we could sell 10,000 copies of a title without any major-label distribution, that would be doing very well for an indie," Hingley recounts during a recent phone interview. "But we've had titles sell anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000, still without any help from a major." The label was founded primarily as an outlet for the Toasters, whose debut album had been turned down, Hingley says, by every major label and distributor in the U.S. Since then Moon has remained fiercely independent. "You probably won't find our records in Blockbuster, but I don't think that's necessarily bad," he explains. "We prefer to pitch the records to mom-and-pop shops."
Shops like Blue Note Records in North Miami Beach, which has a huge supply of ska titles crammed into the store's alternative rock wing. Leslie Wimmer, a buyer at Blue Note, has seen interest in the music swell for the last few years, as an audience has developed around groups like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The continuing interest in the British ska acts from the late Seventies helps too.
"It's very consistent," Wimmer says of ska sales at Blue Note. "The compilations especially are good sellers -- probably the best sellers. Compilations in other genres usually don't do so well, but with ska there are just so many bands that don't put out individual CDs. They get grouped together on a compilation and it generates exposure for both the bands and the label."
One such compilation, Closer Than You, documents the work of fifteen ska groups from across Florida, from Fort Lauderdale's recently disbanded Jive Step Bunch to Gainesville's hugely popular Less Than Jake and the assorted bands based in Tampa, including Magadog, the Rug Cutters, and Skahumbug. Closer Than You does a pretty good job of showing what can be done within the framework of this limited genre: Magadog's excellent "So Much" is built around some great chicken-scratch guitar, clacking drums, and a vocal that sounds for all the world like ex-J. Geils Band wailer Peter Wolf; Gainesville's Usuals turn in an inspired and slinky revamp of the warhorse "Besame Mucho"; and Less Than Jake's "Growing Up on a Couch" weds sing-shout punk vocals and crushing heavy-metal guitar with the droning horns and skittering bass work that have long defined the genre.
It all goes back to the late Forties, when groups in Jamaica (most notably that of Eric Dean) were emulating the sounds of American big bands led by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. As America's big bands began evolving in the early Fifties into smaller units with an R&B sound -- the sound that would soon heavily influence the development of rock and roll -- Jamaican bandleaders followed suit. The groups got smaller, the sound got tighter, and, as they attempted to emulate the R&B style beamed to the island from radio signals in Miami and New Orleans, the beat got harder. Traveling sound systems -- portable public-address units run by various DJs -- soon began blasting this music throughout Kingston and outlying regions. As their audiences grew, sound system operators such as Duke Reid, Clement Dodd, and later Cecil "Prince Buster" Campbell were cutting records, which they sold after shows, by local artists for their booming systems.