Skankin' Out Racism

Porkpie hats and checkered suits make for great video imagery. So too stretchy-tubed trombones and overamped pseudopunks twisting their wiry frames around the syncopated beats of Jamaican dance music. Ska, the hyped-up progenitor of reggae, is simply made for MTV, its offspring M2, and any other channel that broadcasts music videos.

Witness the video-rific rise of No Doubt, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Smash mouth, and Sublime -- all influenced by or veterans of the ska scene. Not since the heyday of early-Eighties MTV faves Madness and the Specials have ska aficionados (or at least part-time practitioners) enjoyed such red-carpet treatment from the musical powers that be.

Without question, the uplifting, sometimes political, and often wacky musical detour of ska has experienced a resurgence, easily surpassing the popularity of any of its previous incarnations. Now, for those whose interest has been piqued by the staples of music-video programming and end-of-the-century modern-rock radio, an opportunity to encounter ska unpolluted by the demands of pop stardom is here, conveniently cloaked in a good cause: the Ska Against Racism Tour, which wriggles into Sunrise Musical Theater on Tuesday, April 14.

The six-week, eight-band expedition is the brainchild of ska musician and indie record label honcho Mike Park, former frontman for underground heroes the Skankin' Pickle and known throughout ska circles as Bruce Lee -- much to the chagrin of the actor's family. Last fall Park was feeling the itch to perform live. He had spent most of the past two years running Asian Man, his San Jose-based ska label, and hadn't been on-stage since the 1996 demise of the Pickle.

But Park had recorded two post-Pickle albums -- one under the name the B. Lee Band and one as the Chinkees -- and was contemplating organizing a tour featuring the Bruce Lee Band (Park backed by Asian Man signees MU330) and other acts on his label. Then the concept of a tour with a message hit him. "Ska music to me has always meant this equality, this unity movement," he explains. "When I was in high school in the mid-Eighties, the ska scene was still in the second movement, the two-tone era. Ska now seems to have gotten away from the original association of anti-racism. So I just want to let the kids know, if they're not familiar with the older music, to give them a little history of it and let them know that it was about unity. That's the reason I wanted to do the tour, to bring back those ideas. And also being a minority and dealing with racial incidents all my life, it's something that's important to me."

Important enough for Park to enter into serious discussions with his booking agent and friends from bands he had crossed paths with during the past decade. Without much need for arm-twisting, the Ska Against Racism Tour came together. In addition to St. Louis-based MU330 (which plays its own set after serving as Park's backup), Park recruited Chicago's Blue Meanies; Mustard Plug from Grand Rapids, Michigan; New York City's the Toasters; Japanese ska-punks Kemuri; Denver's Five Iron Frenzy; and from Gainesville, Florida, Less Than Jake. The 28-year-old singer also bagged the groups Anti Racist Action and Artists for a Hate-Free America, as well as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, all of which have helped to promote the tour and whose members will cheerfully disseminate literature and a dose of forward thinking (or common sense, depending on your IQ) to interested concert attendees. At the end of the tour a portion of the proceeds will be divided among these and other anti-racism groups selected by the bands.

The music was born in the late Fifties when Jamaican musicians wed American R&B to mento, their indigenous pop music, creating a dance-happy hybrid marked by off-kilter guitar strokes and punchy horn phrasings. By the early Sixties artists like Desmond Dekker and bands such as the Skatalites and the Wailing Wailers (featuring Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer) had embraced ska, and would eventually transmute it into a slower, more groove-heavy sound called rock steady, and, ultimately, reggae.

During the late Sixties and early Seventies reggae gained momentum and attracted an interracial following, exported to the world through the efforts of industry visionaries such as Chris Blackwell with his Island Records and artists like Jimmy Cliff, who became the first international reggae star after playing the lead in the 1973 movie The Harder They Come. Reggae, however, was not the only offshoot of ska to have lasting import. Today's rappers can trace their musical stylings to another early derivation of ska: Jamaican DJs in the Fifties set up massive sound systems to "toast," or rap, as they spun mostly instrumental records, some of which they had recorded themselves.

By the time Eric Clapton recorded a whitewashed version of Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" in 1974, reggae had hit the mainstream and most vestiges of ska were long gone. Gone, but not forgotten. By the late Seventies ska -- adopted by the punk movement and reignited as two-tone in recognition of the multiracial nature of many of its best bands -- experienced its second coming. English groups such as Madness, the Specials, the Selecter, the English Beat, and, in Los Angeles, the Untouchables breathed life into the choppy rhythms while donning wild suits and the genre's signature porkpie hats.

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