SKA-U-MAH

Small scene, tight community

In 2004, Jeni Larson was on Google trying to figure out exactly what kind of music she had just listened to on the radio. What she heard was a Jamaican sounding dance tune with walking basslines, offbeat guitar chords, and horn solos.

What Larson heard was ska music – a genre stylized by influences of jazz, American R&B, and traditional Caribbean music.

Upon her discovery, Larson wanted to know how to better get immersed in this genre. This is when she found MNSka, an online resource for fans and bands to host and promote shows in the Twin Cities.

“I’ve always just felt really drawn to it,” said Larson on what got her into ska. “I think it’s really fun to listen [and dance] to.”

Since then, Larson has been to over hundreds of shows and helped over the years has volunteered for MNska designing pins, shirts, and fliers.

The MNSka website was created in 2003 by Minneapolis based-band the Prizefighters members Courtney Klos and Aaron Porter as a way to create an online presence for what was a very underground scene at the time, and as a way to promote local acts and make sure some of the more national acts feel more comfortable when in Minnesota.

In the early days of the website, it was a simple list of ska and reggae shows happening in the Twin Cities. Later on, a forum was added for members of the community to interact with each other. Mind you, this all happened in era before social media became very popular.

There was even an instance of a couple meeting on the website that eventually got married and had children.

Today, the site features blogs and contests to further fan engagement – along with plugs in social media sites such as Facebook to better adapt with the times.

The site’s current show promotion is for a 21 plus show at the Turf Club in St. Paul on Oct. 26 aptly called “Skalloween.”

“As long as there are local ska bands making music and putting on shows, MNSka will be there,” said Klos.

A fourth wave?

Ska’s origins can be dated back to the late 1950s in Jamaica and is more or less the precursor to reggae – a genre that would see it’s own boom in popularity a decade later. This early form of ska, often referred to as the “first wave,” combined elements of Caribbean music such such as mento (Jamaican folk music) and calypso (a style of Afro-Caribbean music) with popular American music that came over the radio. Thus a genre was born.

The late 1970s saw a revival in ska’s popularity in Great Britain with the two-tone genre. This kind of ska combined the basic rhythms of the with the more aggressive power chords and politically charged lyrics of punk rock.

Finally, there is “third wave ska.” This came about during the 1990s when ska became popular in the United States. This sound is more punk and pop oriented with greater emphasis on guitar riffs and larger horn sections.

Many now wonder if the current scenes are a fourth wave of ska. If there is, then what is the sound?

According to Jorge Gil, the keyboard player of the band Rocksteady Breakfast, there’s no set sound, but that a fourth wave will be something that “just ends up happening.”

If anything, the current wave includes elements from the previous, which is evident in the Twin Cities ska scene.

Bands like Space Monkey Mafia and Umbrella Bed go for the more punk-driven and distorted sound, Rocksteady Breakfast sticks to 2-tone, and the Prizefighters leans more towards the Jamaican style.

Then there are bands like the Skruffians. Rather than playing punk, they perform what is called “jazz ska.” It takes the same basic rhythms created in the first wave, but uses more jazz melodies

“Everyone’s just growing and figuring out their own place,” said Gil. “Every band kind of has their own direction that they take their ska music in.”

The checkerboard

Part of the reason for the sudden popularity of each wave is how the music was able to travel outside of Jamaica.

Most notably this occured in the two-tone era of ska. The first wave was already popular during the 1960s in the U.K. among the “mod” subculture, but when the second wave arrived at the end of the next decade it happened to be during an increase in immigration from places in the Caribbean like Jamaica.

During this time, there was a lot of clashing between whites and blacks in the U.K. and part of the message in a lot of ska songs was racial unity, which brought about one of the long-lasting symbols of the genre: the checkerboard.

This is a tradition carried on in ska culture today, as most shows feature people of all demographics skanking in checkerboard style Vans at the various shows across the Twin Cities.

For those of you who don’t know what skanking is, it is a popular dance that uses a running man motion while kicking on on each beat and alternating bent-elbow fist punches. This is commonly done in a group such as a mosh pit, or in a circle.

One, not-so-big, happy family

Because the Twin Cities is a further distance from other metro-areas, not too many touring bands come up all that often. So it is a bit harder to get newer people into the scene.

This results in an extremely close community, as for the most part, everybody knows each other, and bands try their hardest to go to each other’s shows.

“Everyone likes hanging out with everyone else” said Gil. “We try doing picnics and things like that a few times a year.”

Normally picnics – and sometimes ice cream socials – involve meeting up at a park where fans and bands can talk about concerts and exchange ideas to help expose more people to ska.

“It’s a very tight-knit community,” said Gil.