First-Generation Ska

Ska emerged in Jamaica in the late 1950s, as an organic outgrowth of the popularity of American rhythm and blues in a musical context that already included established local styles like calypso and the folk-derived indigenous music called mento. As all of these elements interacted and informed each other, a new genre developed, one that often drew on the swinging rhythms of jazz but was fundamentally characterized by a rhythmic structure that emphasized the backbeat: for every beat in a 4/4 measure, ska arrangements had the guitar and/or horns and/or keyboard putting a conspicuous stroke on the “and” of the count (one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and). Because the ear generally expects rhythmic accents and emphases to fall directly on the beat rather than after it, ska is built on rhythmic surprise and creates an almost irresistible impulse to dance. It became hugely popular quite quickly, and its popularity in both Jamaica and throughout the West Indian diaspora (especially in England’s Black urban enclaves) persisted into the 1960s before it was gradually displaced by the slower and more rhythmically elastic rock steady style, which itself was soon eclipsed by the even slower and smokier reggae grooves that were fully emergent by 1970.

Ska lent itself nicely to both instrumental and vocal tunes. The earliest instrumental ensemble to gain broad popularity was the Skatalites, whose jazz-inflected compositions were hugely influential. Among early ska vocalists, Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker both remain legendary, but future reggae stars like Derrick Morgan, Justin Hinds, and Bob Marley all got their start as ska artists. 

The contributions of producers to the development of ska is also important to note. Although many were notoriously unscrupulous in their dealings with artists, studio owners like Clement Dodd, Duke Reid, and future Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga played an important role in giving talented musicians recording opportunities, public exposure, and distribution, and some (like Prince Buster) were musicians themselves as well as producers. Recordings that emerged during this period from studios like Federal and Studio One still influence the sound of contemporary reggae and dancehall music. 

Although ska was fully eclipsed by rock steady and then reggae within a decade or so of its emergence, the style has experienced periodic revivals; the 2 Tone movement in England in the late 1970s was the first of these, and another occurred primarily in the United States in the early 1990s. While these ska revivals generally featured bands who combined the fundamental structures of ska with punk and rock elements, some artists worked explicitly to revive the original sounds of first-generation 1950s and 1960s ska – bands like Hepcat, the Stubborn All Stars, and the Toasters are examples of contemporary old-school ska revivalists.

Essential Artist Collection cover

This is an outstanding introduction to Jamaica’s foundational ska ensemble; it offers essential tracks from the band’s early years, including “Alley Cat Ska,” “El Pussycat,” and “Latin Goes Ska” (though, oddly, not the band’s biggest early hit, “Guns of Navarone”). The fifty tunes also include selections from the Baba Brooks Band, led by a trumpeter who worked extensively with the Skatalites during their early years. Altogether, an excellent overview of early ska.

Simmer Down at Studio One cover

Though credited to Bob Marley and the Wailers, Simmer Down at Studio One actually collects music from the 1960s, well before Marley’s ascension to superstar status, when the group was simply called the Wailers and was a ska band. The title track is iconic, a galloping call to repentance aimed at Kingston’s violent rude boys accompanied by the horns and rhythm section of the Skatalites. A couple of these selections (“It Hurts to Be Alone” and “One Love”) would reappear later in the Wailers repertoire as reggae songs, but on these recordings it’s all honking ska backbeats.

Pressure Drop: The Essential Toots and the Maytals cover

Their biggest hits came as ska was beginning to slow down and turn into rock steady, and this collection documents Toots and the Maytals helping to usher in that transition. Songs like “Monkey Man,” “Pressure Drop,” and “54-46 Was My Number” have legendary status today — “Monkey Man” was famously covered by the Specials during the second-wave ska revival of the early 1980s, and the Clash included a version of “Pressure Drop” as a B side to their “English Civil War” single. On these early recordings Toots Hibbert’s chesty, soulful voice gives the band a highly distinctive sound that continues to resonate today.

Rude Boy Ska cover

One of the most iconic figures of ska and early rock steady, Desmond Dekker parlayed his clear, reedy voice and uncanny melodic gift into huge Jamaican and international hits in the 1960s, including “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “It Mek,” and (especially) the deathless “Israelites.” You’ll find most of those early hits on this collection, which offers a good initial introduction to one of Jamaica’s most important singers.

The Godfather of Ska cover

One of the foundational figures and stylistic architects of the ska sound, Laurel Aitken was and remains a legend of Jamaican music. His career would continue well beyond the ska period ended, but it’s early songs like “Fire in My Wire” and “Landlords and Tenants” that built his reputation. This generous collection begins with Aitken’s pre-ska R&B recordings and then follows his progression through ska and into the rock steady era.

Carry Go Bring Come: Anthology ‘64-‘74 cover

Justin Hinds & the Dominos were one of the few 1960s Jamaican bands to successfully make the stylistic transition from ska through rock steady and all the way into the reggae era. This two-disc set allows you to hear that whole process, from the jump-up ska of “Over the River” and “Carry Go Bring Come” to the funky “Take Heed,” the rock-steady anthem “Time Pass By” and the easy-skanking “Mighty Redeemer.” Interestingly, you get to hear “Botheration” in both ska and reggae versions. An altogether outstanding collection.

King Of Ska cover

A towering figure of early Ska, Prince Buster was exposed to music as a young man when he became attached to Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s sound system; he worked security for him and also began selecting records for the dances. Eventually he began singing and was an architect of the early ska sound, influencing generations of ska musicians. This is a fine collection of his 1960s recordings including “Madness” and “Ska Town.”

The Man and His Music cover

Did you notice the ska band playing in a scene of the James Bond movie Dr. No? That’s Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, playing “Jamaica Jump Up.” Lee was not only a fine bass player (credited with introducing the electric bass to Jamaican musicians), but a canny impresario, producer, and concert organizer; his band was slick and smooth, and introduced countless people to the sounds of ska, rock steady, and reggae. This is a fine collection of his early work in the ska mode.

The Trojan Ska Collection cover

The is one of the best overview collections of first-generation ska that you could find. Over the course of two discs it takes you on a musical tour of 1960s Jamaica, introducing you to the jazzy sounds of the Skatalites and the Baba Brooks Band, the calypso-inflected ska pop of Desmond Dekker, the social commentary of Justin Hinds and the Dominos, crooning overman moves from Eric Morris, and much more. If you listen carefully, you’ll also hear examples of the music beginning to slow and thicken into a style that would come to be called rock steady.

Reggae Instrumentalists: Lester Sterling, Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook cover

Despite its title, this is really a collection of instrumental tunes from the ska and rock steady eras, featuring three mainstays of the legendary Skatalites band: saxophonists Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling, and Tommy McCook. The trio’s jazz roots are evident, but for the most part this is sinewy, skanking ska — tracks like “Peanut Vendor” and the spare “Lonesome Feeling” exemplify the early sound that had all of Kingston winding its collective waist throughout the 1960s.