Hot Days — Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae: A Brief Musical History

rocksteadyDuring a sweltering rehearsal the other night, we decided we were only going to run through some reggae and rocksteady tunes. It was too hot to move, too humid to breathe. We most certainly didn’t want to run through any raucous ska numbers. This reminded me, however, of the story of how ska fell out of fashion in Jamaica during the mid to late ’60s.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Late ’50s Jamaica saw a mix of musical styles played on the island. Tourists wanted to hear Calypso or its Jamaican equivalent, Mento, while the Jamaicans wanted to hear the sounds they were catching over the radio waves from Florida and the States — soul, jazz and R&B.

Hotels and resorts showcased Calypso and Mento, while R&B, jazz and soul were a feature of the many sound systems around Jamaica. A sound system was a generator, a turntable and some speakers loaded in a truck and set up for a street party. The owners and operators of the sound systems would charge admission and sell food and alcohol. Operating in the ghettos, the competition between sound systems was fierce and often violent.

By day, most professional musicians worked the hotels and restaurants, but they also had a very productive career recording for the various music studios that were popping up. Local sound system operators such as Coxone Dodd and Duke Reid had taken the competition of owning and playing the latest exclusive music at their dances to a new level, and that was recording music.

At first it was jazz, R&B, swing and boogie compositions. But as the race for a one-up on rival sound systems escalated, they began to add to the mix. The pace was frenetic. Musicians would record a song, and by the end of the day it was pressed and being played at its respective sound system. Audience reaction to the tune was judged and in the days that followed, clones of the tune from its originator or from the competition could be heard.

Soon as you know it, the sounds of Mento, boogie, blues, R&B, jazz and Latin rhythms had been blended and distilled into the new hit sound: ska!

Ska and its attendant dance style were kings of the ring for most of the ’60s, specifically ’64 and ’65. But in the summer of ’66 that all changed. And the prime catalyst for the change was this: It was HOT!

Jamaica ska, while not as fast as Two Tone or Third Wave Ska, is still a very energetic and upbeat music. And when it’s scorching hot outside, the sound systems and dance halls found that people just didn’t, or couldn’t, dance to it. So the tempo slowed down. Way down.

And this is what sparked my memory at rehearsal. Playing ska, much less dancing to it, is an intense aerobic workout. (In fact, I hear there are even places in NYC and LA that advertise ska workouts.)  Not something your average person wants to do in a heat wave.

So in the summer of ’66, as the heat went up, the tempo went down. Along the way, the music lost the big brass sections common to ska and added more vocalists, and thus Rocksteady was born.

Rocksteady, also known as “Lover’s Rock” due to its slow dance tempo and often romantic lyrics, kept ska’s basic formula of the guitar hitting the “skank” on the offbeat while the drums kept the groove on the two and four count. The bass however, lost its bouncy walk and became much more melodic. And it was this style of rhythm that, in a year or so, would give rise to reggae in the same way as ska gave birth to rocksteady.

And we can all see/hear where reggae went!

Music is constantly evolving. All styles and genres feed on each other and innovation as well as on fads and trends. But I don’t think you’ll find another instance where the weather and the audience had such a hand in determining the direction in which a musical style grew.

Rocksteady and reggae till the weather breaks …

PS.  You can get a taste of ska, rocksteady and a whole lot of reggae at this year’s Waterfront Reggae Fest taking place at India Point Park in Providence on Saturday, August 8. It features Steel Pulse, Yellowman,  Third World, Mighty Mystic, High Hopes Band and local Motif winner of Best Reggae/Ska, The Copacetics. There will also be a smorgasbord of Jamaican food, so you can really get a taste!

There will also be a Reggae Fest after party held at The Parlour on North Main St. in Providence featuring The Copacetics, The Natural Element Band and more.

DISCLAIMER! The musical history lesson above was brought to you for entertainment purposes and pulled from the countless album liner notes and books I’ve read on the subject. For facts and specifics please check out the amazing books by Heather Augustyn. There is also a documentary making the rounds in the US called Legends of Ska: Cool and Copasetic playing August 4 at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Mass, and August 5 at The Brattle in Cambridge, Mass.

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