Small music genres often come and go, but ska music is one of the few that has stood the test of time.
It has carved out a niche in the musical world thanks to its distinct instrumentals, raw energy, and forward-driving brass section.
Like most musical genres, ska music comes from humble roots; however very few genres have had ska’s impact.
While you may not have heard of ska music, this musical style has been sampled in modern pop, punk, rock, hip-hop, and dance songs.
This fascinating style has a rich history, evolution, and culture.
What is the history of ska music?
What is the term for dancing to ska music?
This article aims to answer these questions and more.
What Influenced Ska Music?
Ska is a Jamaican music genre that emerged in the late 1950s and served as a forerunner to rocksteady and reggae.
It is distinguished by a walking bass line accented by offbeat rhythms.
This distinct musical style evolved from a variety of influences, including American jazz and R&B, specifically New Orleans R&B, Caribbean folk music, calypso, and a traditional Jamaican dance known as Mento.
Mento is a fusion of African rhythms and classical European elements that were popular in the 1940s and 1950s, commonly uses acoustic instruments such as acoustic guitar, banjo, hand drums, and the rhumba box (the bass kalimba).
Mento is often confused with calypso music, which originated in Trinidad and Tobago and is distinguished by highly rhythmic and harmonic vocals.
Calypso music was traditionally sung in French creole and led by a griot, a West African musician.
Ska music combines many distinct musical elements to form its own genre, which has defined major elements of 1960s Jamaican music, 1970s British dance music, and 1990s punk music in the United States.
Together, these elements create a vibrant, highly catchy style of music that has achieved on-and-off mainstream popularity.
The ska chop is a guitar technique that is commonly used when playing reggae, ska, and rocksteady music. It is used on the offbeat to give the rhythm more of a jarring flavor.
Stranger Cole, Prince Buster, Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, and Duke Reid formed sound systems in Jamaica in the 1960s to play American rhythm and blues and then began recording their own songs.
Ska was the dominant music genre in Jamaica in the early 1960s, and it was popular among British mods and many skinheads.
The Three Periods of Ska Music
Ska historians typically divide the ska music genre’s history into three periods:
1. The original ska period of the 1960s:
The first wave occurred in Jamaica in the early 1960s, coinciding with the country’s declaration of independence from Britain.
Despite having become an independent country, the wealthiest Jamaicans were still descended from leftover British families.
Ska’s early days were heavily focused on the liberation from the oppression of people of color and racism.
Jamaican musicians raised on calypso, mento, jazz, and R&B began experimenting with new rhythmic approaches to musical performances.
Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, and the Skatalites were among the first ska bands formed by these musicians.
DJs and producers from Jamaican ska included Prince Buster, Duke Reid, and Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd.
2. The late 1970s 2 Tone ska revival in Britain:
The Jamaican ska scene faded in the late 1960s, as reggae and rocksteady became the country’s most popular genres.
Ska, on the other hand, experienced a popularity surge in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The English record label 2 Tone, which released records by the English Beat, the Specials, and Bad Manners, spearheaded the second wave of ska.
Back then, the United States and the United Kingdom were still in the early stages of integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
People were still used to seeing races separated legally and in public, so many ska lyrics frequently focused on combating racism, promoting integration, and opposing Britain’s conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.
It combined Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with a faster cadence and a harder punk-rock edge to create ska-punk.
Ska became popular in the United States in the 1980s.
To create a popularity wave in the United States, groups such as Toasters and Bim Skala Bim incorporated the music and social justice messaging of Jamaican ska music.
3. Wave ska, which involved bands from all over the world in the late 1980s and 1990s:
This era was largely anchored in the 1990s in the United States, where ska’s Jamaican and British roots mixed with the pop-punk scene that had gained a foothold in American music.
Punk bands that had already established themselves began incorporating ska music into their own pop-punk styles.
Third-wave ska bands that use distorted guitars, anthemic melodies, and a more restrained use of horns are frequently classified as ska-punk or ska-core.
Sublime, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone, and Operation Ivy were all well-known acts that had a significant impact on the third wave of ska music.
Traditional ska, two-tone, and ska-punk bands have a global following today.
As nu-metal and alternative rock gained popularity, the third wave of ska faded away.
However, the late 1990s did not mark the end of ska music, as many of the original bands from the first two waves are still active and releasing music.
Its popularity fluctuated as it began to compete with other musical styles for popularity.
People from various backgrounds and countries have contributed to what we now call ska music, which most consider to be the fourth wave of ska.
Origins of Ska
There are numerous theories regarding the origins of the word ska.
According to Ernest Ranglin, the term was coined by musicians to refer to the “skat! skat! skat!” scratching guitar strum.
Another theory is that during a recording session produced by Coxsone Dodd in 1959, double bassist Cluett Johnson instructed guitarist Ranglin to “play like ska, ska, ska,” though Ranglin has denied this, stating that “Clue couldn’t tell me what to play!”
Another theory is that it came from Johnson’s word skavoovie, which he used to greet his friends.
Jackie Mittoo insisted that the musicians called the rhythm Staya Staya and that the term “ska” was coined by Byron Lee.
A Brief History of Ska Music
Following World War II, an increasing number of Jamaicans purchased radios and were able to listen to R&B music from the Southern United States in cities such as New Orleans.
The early recordings of artists such as Barbie Gaye, Fats Domino, Louis Jordan, and Rosco Gordon all contained the seeds of the behind-the-beat feel reminiscent of ska and reggae.
Because American military forces were stationed in Jamaica during and after World War II, Jamaicans could listen to military broadcasts of American music, and there was a constant influx of records from the United States in the country.
Entrepreneurs such as Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd, and Duke Reid formed sound systems to meet the demand for that music.
In the late 1950s, the supply of previously unheard tunes in the jump blues and predecessors of R&B genres began to dwindle.
Jamaican producers began recording their own versions of music from these genres with local artists.
These recordings were originally intended to be played on soft wax (a lacquer layer on metal disc acetate later known as a ‘dubplate’).
But as demand grew, producers such as Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid began to issue them on 45rpm 7-inch discs sometime in the second half of 1959 (believed by most to be in the last quarter).
However, within two or three years, the style, which was once a carbon copy of American ‘shuffle blues,’ had evolved into the more familiar ska style, with the off-beat guitar chop heard in some of the more uptempo recordings of the late-1950s American rhythm and blues.
Examples of this type of ska style are Domino’s “Be My Guest” and Barbie Gaye’s “My Boy Lollypop,” both of which were popular on Jamaican sound systems at the time.
This ‘classic’ ska style, featured in the above tracks, had bars of four triplets but was distinguished by an off-beat guitar chop known as an upstroke or ‘skank.’
Horns take the lead and frequently follow the off-beat upstroke, while the piano emphasizes the bass line before playing the upstroke again.
Ernest Ranglin, a Jamaican guitarist and composer, claimed that the difference between R&B and ska beats is that the former goes ‘chink-ka’ and the latter goes ‘ka-chink.’
It’s difficult to attribute the invention of ska music to a single person or group. Because Jamaican history is typically kept orally, therefore, no one knows who first recorded it, so there are many disagreements about who deserves credit.
The most likely scenario is that ska grew as a movement rather than due to a single person or group, though Ernest Ranglin is also likely to have invented the ska chop.
Ska Music, Dancing, and Its Characteristics
Skanking is the dance style that goes along with ska music.
It began in Jamaican dance halls in the 1950s and evolved over time to better suit the speed and style of later ska revivals.
Ska punk, for example, necessitates a slightly more aggressive dance style with faster movements than traditional skanking.
Originally, skanking involved a ‘running man’ motion of the legs to the beat while alternating left and right bent-elbow fist punches, but variations appeared over time.
The punk version, also known as two-stepping, has a sharp striking-out look with the arms and is sometimes used in moshing to knock around others doing the same.
The majority of the time, though, this is viewed as a mutual release of emotion rather than a true act of aggression.
Ska music is characterized by the following:
1. Rock instruments plus horns:
Guitars, basses, and drums are almost always joined by a jazz horn section, which can include saxophones, trumpets, and trombones.
2. Melodic balance between singers and horn section:
In contrast to guitars in rock music, horns are more likely to get an instrumental solo in a song.
These instrumentals usually replace the vocalist’s lyrics with a verse or two.
3. 4/4 time signature:
Ska is almost entirely written in 4/4 time and is frequently played at a brisk pace.
Drummers typically emphasize the backbeat (beats two and four), while guitarists frequently use percussive stabs on beats two, three, and four.
The bass guitar is typically active, playing a mix of the quarter and eighth notes.
4. Lyrics about social justice:
Most ska bands convey a social or political message in their song lyrics.
At the start of the genre, the groups largely focused on the racism experienced by members and advocated for both racial equality and integration — integration was still a work in progress at the time.
Third-wave ska has a broader range of lyrical themes, some of which have nothing to do with activism or social justice.
Ska bands forming in California, particularly in recent years, have been vocal advocates for the legalization of cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes.
At other times, groups have advocated for and against specific presidential regimes, as well as against the numerous wars that their countries are involved in.
It is also not surprising to learn that a lot of ska bands have disbanded and their members have gone on to become activists instead of constantly producing music.
10 Best Examples of Ska Music
Ska is a fusion genre that includes a variety of musical instruments and soundscapes.
Depending on the style of the band, it may also look different from one band to the next.
Some of the best ska tracks from the last four decades are still popular today and serve as a fun reminder of when the genre was at its peak.
Here are ten of the best ska songs, many of which have great music videos to accompany the tunes.
1. “Mirror in the Bathroom” by The Beat
Formed in 1978 in England, The Beat brought to the British Isles a unique blend of Latin, ska, pop, soul, punk, and reggae.
In the early 1980s, the group released three studio albums as part of Europe’s 2-tone ska music wave. They had notable hits with “Best Friend”, “All Out To Get You,” and “Doors Of Your Heart.”
The 1980 single, “Mirror in the Bathroom,” by the British ska band, The Beat, from their debut album I Just Can’t Stop It peaked at number four on the UK Singles Chart, making it their highest charting release in the country until 1983.
Second-wave ska was in full swing by the time The Beat—later renamed English Beat as they entered the US market—released their debut album.
Nonetheless, The Beat made its mark by combining essentially perfect pop with ska rhythms.
Not that their roots weren’t authentic; saxophonist Saxa was of Jamaican descent, and co-vocalist Ranking Roger added traditional Jamaican toasting to their songs.
The Beat had crossover appeal, which led to some of ska’s biggest hits.
“Mirror in the Bathroom,” a blend of ska’s rhythmic scratch with catchy sing-along verses and a haunting, paranoid atmosphere, was a pioneering track that spoke about narcissism and vanity.
2. “Rock Fort Rock” by The Skatalites
The majority of The Skatalites’ well-known songs were performed and recorded between 1963 and 1965.
They were a Jamaican ska band that helped to establish the genre by producing hit songs like Guns of Navarone.
In addition to their own material, the group provided backing vocals for popular acts such as Bob Marley and The Wailers on their song Simmer Down.
Considered to be one of the most famous songs by the band, the track was part of their Ball of Fire album, which was released in the United States in 1998.
With the release of this masterpiece, The Skatalites established themselves as legendary instrumentalists.
The singers easily incorporated hints of reggae, jazz, and Caribbean elements while still sticking to the traditional ska style they were best known for.
Some of the band’s older instrumentals, which had been hit in the UK, were stretched out and given a jazzier sound, with longer guitar and horn solos.
3. “Everything Girl” by Mustard Plug
Mustard Plug is a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based American ska punk band that formed in 1991.
The band has had at least eleven band members come and go over the course of its twenty-year career, but original founding members and chief songwriters Dave Kirchgessner and Colin Clive have remained constant.
The feel-good, energetic music they produce, combined with a fantastic live performance, is another thing that hasn’t changed about the ska band.
Mustard Plug included “Everything Girl” on their album Pray for Mojo as well as their greatest hits collection Masterpieces: 1991-2002.
This cheerful song was accompanied by an equally upbeat music video in which everyone is shown to be having fun on a tennis court.
The lyrics are about a girl, who changes the life of the sad, introverted singer by just being herself.
The incredible horn section of trumpeter Brandon Jenison and trombonist Jim Hofer is what elevates this song.
The song has plenty of sharp hooks and enthusiasm to keep the listener interested and dancing along.
4. “On My Radio” by The Selecter
The 2 Tone label and its various bands gave ska a distinctively English voice, which spoke to the era’s rising political tensions and the dangerous right-wing factions that had emerged at the time—and whose supporters unfortunately still exist today.
Coventry, England-based Pauline Black, the lead singer, whose vocal delivery is translated for ska and rocksteady rhythms, was another distinctive voice on the Selecter.
Pauline Black has been dubbed the ‘Queen of Ska,’ and it’s no surprise given her powerful, compelling vocals, commanding style, and grace.
The Selecter shared vinyl space with fellow Coventry 2 Tone act The Specials, who rose to prominence with hits like “Ghost Town” and “Rudy, A Message To You.”
The Selecter, on the other hand, more than held their own thanks to their distinct rawness and slightly harder punk edge.
“On My Radio” is a song by the Selecter that was released as a single on October 5, 1979.
It peaked at number eight on the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for nine weeks, becoming their most successful single.
“On My Radio” criticizes radio with the line “It’s just the same old show on my radio,” but it also makes fun of radio by joking that the singer’s lover prefers to listen to the radio rather than them.
The song is also notable for its unusual 7/4 time signature, as opposed to the more common 4/4, which Pauline Black claims were due to a lack of knowledge of the rules.
5. “Rudy, A Message to You” by Dandy Livingstone
‘Rudy’ (or ‘rudie’) is reggae slang for ‘rudeboy’—a thug, a gangster, or an out-of-control adolescent.
Jamaican street culture in the 1960s gave rise to slang terms and a subculture known as rude boy, rudeboy, rudie, rudi, and rudy, which are still in use today.
The terms ‘rude boy’ and ‘rude girl,’ among other variations, experienced a resurgence in England in the late 1970s when it came to describing two-tone ska fans.
Back when parents and cops despised dance clubs and pop music was thought to merely rile up troublemakers, this iconic Trojan Records cut attempted to dampen the kids’ wildest instincts.
The message of Livingstone’s midtempo, the horn-driven song is one of composure and common sense, a direct admonition to pay attention and become a better person.
The Specials covered the song for a hit single in 1979, but the original track is still a staple in the ska music genre.
On the song’s 55th anniversary, Trojan Records even released an official music video accompanying the iconic track.
6. “007 (Shanty Town)” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces
Desmond Dekker recorded some of his most well-known songs with his backing band, the Aces (consisting of Wilson James and Easton Barrington Howard).
Their debut album 007 (Shanty Town) features their single of the same name, which helped Desmond Dekker become Jamaican music’s first international superstar.
The album reached the 14th spot in the UK charts.
Listeners will be able to hear how Ska music from the mid-1960s evolved into the rocksteady sound.
The song was ‘Ska’ or ‘Blue Beat’ — (or its new name for the slower tempo ‘Rocksteady’), and the lyrics were written in the Calypso-Mento style, which tells about current events in music.
Written after a protest turned violent, the song has roots in real-life chaos and is a pioneering ‘rude boy’ narrative masked in offbeat rhythms.
It serves as an illustration of an aesthetic and cultural mainstay that eventually evolved into the defining song for an entire musical genre.
7. “Party at Ground Zero” by Fishbone
When ska arrived in America in the 1980s, it spawned a slew of great indie acts.
However, it wasn’t until it crossed over into ska-punk that it began to make a commercial impact.
Fishbone is a Los Angeles-based American rock band that plays a fusion of ska, punk, funk, metal, reggae, and soul.
The band developed a sizable cult following thanks to their hyperactive, self-conscious diversity, sense of humor, and insightful social commentary.
Their greatest commercial success was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after which several members left the band and others took their place.
In this song, their pounding drums, funky riffs, and bleating horn section give kaleidoscopic lyrics about nuclear war jet propulsion.
The video is a homage to The Masque of the Red Death, a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, in which Death causes a nuclear explosion when he takes off his mask.
Fishbone proved that ska, a genre notorious for being monocultural, standoffish, and buttoned-up cool, could be positively epic.
8. “Enjoy Yourself” by Prince Buster
Artists have made covers of others’ music with that signature island skiffle since the beginning of time or even played over fellow artists’ dubs to heavily rely on a certain sound.
When Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians made “Enjoy Yourself,” a top-10 hit in the United States in 1950, other musicians followed suit in covering the song in their preferred genres.
The song is a natural fit for ska due to its inherent swinging nature and numerous arrangements, including percolating horn parts.
Despite being only a B-side at first, its lighthearted fatalism (“Enjoy yourself / It’s later than you think”) educated and motivated decades of ska fans.
Simon Mayo used the 2003 recording by Jools Holland and Prince Buster as the opening theme to his Drivetime show on BBC Radio 2.
For 27 years, a Cantonese-language cover version of this song’s chorus served as the theme song for Enjoy Yourself Tonight, a Hong Kong variety show that was one of the longest-running live shows in television history.
This just goes to show that this song is a class hit in not only the States but in Eastern countries as well.
9. “Ghost Town” by The Specials
The Specials, also known as The Special AKA, is a Coventry-based English 2-tone and ska revival band that formed in 1977.
Their music combines ska and rocksteady rhythms with punk energy and attitude.
Lyrically, their songs (often written by primary songwriter Dammers) made explicit political and social statements.
“Ghost Town” is a song written by the Specials and released on June 12, 1981.
The recession-themed song spent three weeks at the top of the UK Singles Chart and 11 weeks overall in the top 40.
The song is remembered for being a hit at the same time as riots in British cities, evoking themes of urban decay, deindustrialization, unemployment, and violence in inner cities.
Internal band tensions were also rising as the single was being recorded, resulting in the song being the final single recorded by the original seven members of the group before they split up.
All three of the major UK music magazines of the time gave “Ghost Town” the title of ‘Single of the Year for 1981, praising the song as a significant work of popular social commentary.
In 1981, it was the 12th best-selling single in the United Kingdom.
10. “Superman” by Goldfinger
Goldfinger is a Los Angeles, California-based punk rock and ska punk band that formed in 1994.
In their early years, the band was regarded as a contributor to the third-wave ska movement, a revitalization of ska popularity in the mid-1990s.
However, with the release of their fourth album Open Your Eyes and fifth album Disconnection Notice, the band shed most of its ska influence, and they have since been classified as punk rock.
“Superman” first appeared on the album Hang-Ups by Goldfinger in 1997.
But most people will recognize the song because it made its video game debut in the original Tony Hawk’s skateboarding game Pro Skater, which was released in 1999 for PlayStation.
Hawk, in fact, performed with Goldfinger on January 14, 2023, in Anaheim, California with Goldfinger’s John Feldmann.
The skateboarder said that the song “Superman” – which features on the soundtrack for various iterations of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – has defined the video game series for decades.
What Is Ska Music – Final Thoughts
What is ska music today?
Ska music appears to be the same as it always has been: a mash-up of Jamaican mento, calypso, rhythm and blues, and punk rock.
While there are key elements that define ska music, there is a lot of room for creativity and it tends to stay outside of the genre’s mainstream definitions.
Some of the original bands are still active, with ska music being released as we speak.
Still operative, The Specials and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones continue to release songs that reach the top of the charts today.
Although ska music might never be as popular as it was during its third wave, it will remain an important music style for those who enjoy it.
These songs are just the tip of the iceberg that is ska music.
So, if any of these songs struck a chord with you or made you want to dance, why not look for more ska songs?
Perhaps you’ll discover your next new favorite.