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.
By the early Sixties, the island was flooded with music. Studios and sound systems flourished, while countless labels cranked out innumerable singles and albums documenting the sonic innovations of Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley's Wailers, Toots Hibbert and the Maytals, the Skatalites, Don Drummond, and many, many others. The music was built around chopping guitars that accented the upbeat (rather than R&B's emphasis on the downbeat), darting horn sections usually led by a swooping trombone, and a bass line that meandered through the whole mix, holding down the rhythm as it danced along the vocal melody. By the mid-Sixties, though, the music got slower, the tempos less frantic (owing, according to legend, to a particularly hot 1966 summer in Jamaica -- too hot for dancers to keep up with the hyper rhythms of ska). The music mutated first into the smoother rock steady, then, in the Seventies, into the style of reggae typified and perfected by Marley, the Maytals, and others.
Ska's first major resurgence came in England during the late Seventies, as punk rock was nose-diving and the notoriously fickle British music press were looking for the next big thing. They found it in the working-class industrial suburb of Coventry, where a keyboardist named Jerry Dammers had assembled a racially mixed septet named the Special AKA (later simply the Specials). Infatuated with ska's choppy, hyperactive rhythms and with the musical simplicity and political candor of punk, the Specials created a hybrid that was both accessible and challenging -- rooted in history, but very much a product of its environment.
Dammers debuted his 2-Tone label in 1979 with the Specials' maiden single "Gangsters," which featured lyrics written by Dammers affixed to Prince Buster's 1965 instrumental ska classic "Al Capone." Between the song's nagging, incessant riff and the added clout of star producer Elvis Costello, "Gangsters" became a huge hit in England, as did the band's eponymous longplayer. The Specials' success was quickly matched by similar offerings from the group's peers in Coventry and Birmingham, some of whom recorded for 2-Tone, including the Beat ("Ranking Full Stop," "Tears of a Clown"), Madness ("The Prince," "One Step Beyond"), the Selecter ("On My Radio," "Too Much Pressure"), and UB40 ("Food for Thought," "One in Ten").
Like the work of ska pioneers such as the Wailers, Desmond Dekker, and Prince Buster, these British groups used their music to comment on the heated political climate of the times and on various social issues. The Specials' "A Message to You Rudy" and "Doesn't Make It Alright" were heartfelt calls for racial tolerance, while "Too Much Too Young" was a scabrous, hilarious endorsement of contraception. Both the Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" and UB40's "Madame Medusa" were vicious, well-aimed attacks on prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and the Selecter's "On My Radio" and "Three Minute Hero" were wry commentaries on the pop world.
Two songs, though, best illustrate the Specials' scope. "Ghost Town" arrived amid the heated racial riots that plagued Liverpool and Brixton in 1981, underpinned with a mournful horn chart and an eerie, wailing vocal tag that floats through the song like a black angel. Even scarier than that chronicle of race wars and club violence is "The Boiler," a one-off pairing of the Specials with vocalist Rhoda Dakar. Over a bouncing, finger-popping backing track (some of the greatest music of the band's career), Dakar tells a first-person story of being picked up in a bar by a guy she thinks is way better than she ("boiler," after all, being British slang for an unattractive woman), then raped. The song is haunting and bone-chilling, an unshakable five-minute spiel that freezes time, her anguished screams hanging in the room long after the song fades out.
2-Tone's U.K. chart run had ended by 1984: The Specials splintered following the parting of vocalists Terry Hall and Neville Staples and guitarist Lynval Golding, who formed the Fun Boy Three, while Dammers reverted to the band's original handle, the Special AKA. The Beat had left the label earlier to form their own Go Feet imprint and were enjoying a smattering of stateside success with the singles "Sooner or Later" and "I Confess." The Selecter had broken up in 1981 after a disappointing and desultory second album (Celebrate the Bullet). Madness, however, had retooled their sound and were cranking out catchy pop confections for Stiff Records that had more to do with the Kinks than Prince Buster. With the aid of a goofy video, the band's 1983 single "Our House" became a Top 10 hit in the U.S., followed quickly by "It Must Be Love," the group's last Top 40 hit in the states. They disbanded three years later. The Special AKA, meanwhile, enjoyed one last burst of creativity -- 1984's brilliant single "Free Nelson Mandela" and the accompanying album In the Studio -- before disappearing in the late Eighties.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
If the second wave of ska had gone the way of most music trends, it also developed a posthumous following among punk kids in the U.S., who latched on to the music's high-paced beat just as they voraciously consumed the ultrafast hardcore punk of Minor Threat, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedys. Groups such as the Toasters and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones carried on, laying the groundwork for the current boom by burning a ska-scorched path through the rock and roll underground. Sparked by this continuing interest, the Specials reunited, as did the Selecter and Madness. They were uniformly welcomed as the elder innovators of ska by a legion of fans who were probably still in diapers when "Gangsters" hit the streets of England.
"This music is limitless," says Joe Basi, the 22-year-old drummer for Fort Lauderdale's King 7 and the Soulsonics, an octet formed last fall by ex-members of the Jive Step Bunch. The band has a split single out on the Fort Lauderdale indie Cole Mack Records and is slated to appear on Spawn of Skarmageddon, a Moon compilation due out next month. Basi was introduced to ska via the 2-Tone groups as well as old records by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and sees the music's bottomless energy and ability to fuse various genres as the key to its logic-defying staying power. "There's a lot of happiness to it, and you've got a lot of different styles at work in the music," Basi continues. "It just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and hopefully that will continue."
Robert Hingley of Moon most surely agrees: "There's a vitality to the music that is very attractive, and there's a huge subculture to it that involves different nationalities and races and political viewpoints. It's been commercially successful at a number of different times over the decades. This was rebel music from the get-go that echoed the spirit of independence in Jamaica in the Sixties. That's the spark to the music that makes it so endearing."
Skapocalypse Now! is Friday, January 17, at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-9333. Bands include the Scofflaws, MU330, the Skunks, Skavoovie and the Epitones, the Usuals, Skif Dank, the Rug Cutters, King 7 and the Soulsonics, the Pork Pie Tribe, and Missile Command. The all-ages show begins at 6:00 p.m. Tickets are $11 advance, $13 the day of the show.