Ska and Rocksteady

During the 1950s, popular music was changing in the United States and the Caribbean. Blues and jazz music broadcast and released in the states made its way via airwaves and jukeboxes to Jamaica's listeners and patrons of dance halls. It was this influence that led to the creation of ska and, later, rocksteady.

"Shuffle" was the name for the earliest form of Jamaican music that combined jazz, blues, and the local mento styles. For the first time, Jamaican musicians began recording, and their music became important. In the earliest days of shuffle, songs were all instrumental, but the style was extremely derivative of North American artists.

In 1962, a few artists began experimenting with their own styles, emphasizing the afterbeat, rather than the downbeat. This afterbeat emphasis for guitars and other instruments is characteristic of Jamaica's current music. At the same time, other artists began emphasizing the second and fourth beats, and the Jamaican sound known as ska was born.

Some tell different histories of ska music, but the development of musical styles is an organic process. It's difficult to credit one particular person with the idea that started it all or identify the person who is most responsible for a musical change. However the music developed, it is here to stay.

Evolving Music

The earliest ska recordings were done in a hopeful period in Jamaica's history. The island was finally able to gain its long-awaited independence from Britain, and Jamaica's people were looking toward the future. This positive sentiment was recreated in the earliest ska recordings.

At the same time, competition began growing between different DJs, who hoped to keep popular dance tunes to themselves, often playing un-labeled records to keep others from competing with them. "Dance hall crashers" would often escalate events by causing trouble at competitors' parties, at the request of other parties' leaders. But the islanders' passion for these songs created Jamaica's first commercial musical form.

By this time, many young men had come to Kingston in search of work, which was nowhere to be found. Their negative outlook on life evolved into a new style of dancing to ska music, in a slower, more intimidating fashion. They became known as rude boys. Bass and tension were added to ska music at this time.

Creating Rocksteady

Soon tensions escalated further, and the self-prescribed outlaws of the rude boys became true outlaws, as laws on Jamaica were passed prohibiting people from carrying guns. Ska lyrics by "rude" groups reflected this lawless mentality and were different than the lyrics of earlier ska songs.

This distinctive, slower style developed in the mid-1960s became known as "rocksteady" due, most likely, to the song called "Rock Steady," which was produced in 1966. These rude boys cultivated a style combining the look, music, and attitudes of British mods and American punks.

Musically, they changed greatly from the ska style where horns and bass dominated. The addition of electric instruments, especially guitars, and the removal of the horn sections created an entirely different sound. Bass dominated even the drums in this format.

Exporting Style

By the 1970s, ska had declined in Jamaica, but its popularity was growing in England. Popular bands, such as The Clash and artists like Elvis Costello, appropriated similar sounds as part of their music. Ska was particularly well-accepted by the punk community.

Ska became extremely popular in England and even spawned musical labels to produce the many ska records that British people craved. However, by the mid-1980s, the scene began to falter, and the second wave of ska was coming to an end.

The third wave of ska was in the United States and became extremely popular through several bands, but No Doubt is perhaps the best-known. Their success has brought the style of ska to international charts, while many other bands pioneered the genre in the United States, including bands like Voodoo Glow Skulls and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. This third wave of ska is much less like the original ska than the music of the second wave.

Both ska and rocksteady were direct predecessors of reggae, the most widely recognized and widely popular Jamaican form of music. The influences of politics and social pressures, as well as an interest in producing music to dance to, fused to become ska and rocksteady, Jamaica's first musical genres.


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