Some recent vinyl releases, all of which include vintage material, could bring back into the spotlight probably the most neglected of Caribbean musical styles - ska.
The blend of calypso sounds, jazz and skittering rock beat known as ska briefly flared in popularity twice - originally in its birthplace, Jamaica, during the early 1960s, and in England during the early 1980s as part of the Two-Tone movement- and then faded back into the woodwork.Typical of the movement's sound is a bouncy guitar or piano sound, and more reliance on brassy horns than on guitar for the meat of the beat. Unfortunately, such a style is not easy for contemporary acts to follow since it requires such instrumental expertise.
However, many European and underground U.S. acts are trying to perpetuate the style, most notably New York acts Bim Skala Bim and the Toasters. Many future reggae stars got their starts in the music business working within the style, and these four releases spotlight some of these then-fledgling artists.BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS; "The Birth of a Legend (1963-66)" (Epic/CBS Records). * * * *
The father of reggae music, Robert Nesta Marley - as well as other members of the original four-member Wailers - started his musical career and worked the bugs out of many of his later hits by working within the skittering ska style.
Along with fellow Kingston, Jamaica, residents Bunny Livingstone (aka Wailer) and Peter Mackintosh (aka Tosh), Marley quickly rose to fame in his homeland during the middle 1960s before reaching his pinnacle shortly before his death in 1981.
It's interesting to hear Marley's husky tenor voice as a youth, where it had a reedy, if not charming, quality. Additionally, the rudimentary instrumentals on later Wailers hits, "One Love" and "Love and Affection," marvelously complement harmonies from Marley, fellow tenor Livingstone and darkly bass-voiced Tosh.
The three also manage to show off their underappreciated instrumental talents (Marley on guitar, Tosh on keyboards and Livingstone on percussion) throughout this album, which compiles many of the biggest of the band's Jamaican hits, long unavailable to U.S. audiences.
Among the winners in this 20-track set are the aforementioned "Love and Affection" and an early working of Tosh's "Maga Dog." It would be unfair not to mention the wonderful liner notes by superlative Marley biographer Tim White, which perfectly complement this terrific release.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Intensified: Original Ska 1962-66" (Mango/Island Records). * * *
VARIOUS ARTISTS; "More Intensified: Original Ska 1963-67" (Mango/Island Records). * * * 1/2
VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Club Ska '67" (Mango/Island Records). * * * *
These three ska compilations, out of print for almost 10 years, have been rereleased on Island Records' Mango imprint to coincide with the rerelease of Bob Marley's reggae albums.
Thanks should go out to Island for offering the sets, which feature terrific and underappreciated hits from little-known (outside Jamaica and ska enthusiasts) artists like Roland Alphonso, the Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Dekker.
In tempo, the two "Intensifieds" feature a greater variety of material from the '60s, and richer instrumentals - most artists are accompanied by the Skatalites, including trombonists Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez, tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso, trumpeter Baba Brooks and guitarist Ernest Ranglin. Unfortunately, besides the Skatalites members' respective efforts (especially Alphonso's "James Bond," Brooks' "Duck Soup" and Drummond's "Stampede"), many other tracks on the first compilation just fall flat.
"More Intensified" features even more spectacular Skatalites tracks, especially "Dr. Kildare," "Sucu-Sucu" and "Dick Tracy," as well as the Maytals' "Six and Seven Books of Moses."
Even better, though, is the later compilation, drawn largely from 1967 Jamaican and surprisingly, British, dance club hits. Instrumentals such as the Skatalites' cover of "The Guns of Navarone" theme music and Roland Alphonso's ska standard, "Phoenix City," sit comfortably alongside Rita Marley's cover of "Pied Piper."
But if anyone is interested in seeing why ska rose so high so quickly, just check out Justin Hines and the Dominoes' "Rub Up, Push Up" (on the "Club Ska '67" compilation), which features memorable pop hooks and an irresistible rear-shaking groove. Covering such a song could make or break a young and talented ska band.
Now if someone would just teach today's generation how to skank (the Jamaican version of the Twist, with more flexibility required) properly. Here's a hint - it's not so much a contact sport, a la slamdancing, as it is seeing if your feet can reach your forehead while standing. . . .