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Porkpie hats and checkered suits make for great video imagery. So do stretchy-tubed trombones and overamped pseudopunks twisting their wiry frames around the syncopated beats of Jamaican dance music. The uplifting, sometimes political, and often wacky musical detour known as ska is simply made for MTV.
Witness the video-rific rise of No Doubt, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Smashmouth, and Sublime, all influenced by or veterans of the ska scene. Not since the early '80s, when Madness and the Specials were MTV favorites, has ska received such red-carpet treatment from the musical powers that be. But ska came from the street, and on Tuesday, April 14, a grassroots ska festival will come wriggling into South Florida: the Ska Against Racism Tour.
The six-week, eight-band expedition is the brainchild of Mike Park, who not only heads his own indie record label but also served as the frontman for Skankin' Pickle, a long-time presence on the underground ska scene. Last fall, Park (who also goes by the name "Bruce Lee") was feeling the itch to perform live. He had spent most of the past two years running Asian Man, his San Jose-based ska label, and hadn't been on stage since the demise of Skankin' Pickle in 1996.
Park had recorded two post-Pickle albums -- one under the name the B. Lee Band and one as the Chinkees -- and was contemplating organizing a tour featuring his own band and other Asian Man artists such as MU330. The 28-year-old Park grew up during the integrationist "two-tone" ska movement of the mid-'80s and decided that what was missing from today's music was a message.
"Ska music to me has always meant this equality, this unity movement," he explains. "Ska now seems to have gotten away from the original associations of antiracism. So I just want to let the kids know, if they're not familiar with the older music, to give them a little history of it and let them know that it was about unity. That's the reason I wanted to do the tour, to bring back those ideas. And also, being a minority and dealing with racial incidents all my life, it's something that's important to me."
Park ran the idea by his booking agent and friends from bands he had crossed paths with during the past decade. Without much need for arm-twisting, the Ska Against Racism Tour came together, and Park recruited bands from all over America. The lineup includes MU330 (St. Louis), the Blue Meanies (Chicago), Mustard Plug (Grand Rapids, Michigan), the Toasters (New York City), Five Iron Frenzy (Denver), and Gainesville's own Less Than Jake. Park even brought aboard a ska band from Japan named Kemuri.
Park also garnered the participation of the groups Anti-Racist Action and Artists for a Hate Free America, as well as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. All have helped promote the tour, and their members will likely be found cheerfully disseminating literature to concertgoers. At the end of the tour a portion of the proceeds will be divided among these and other antiracism groups selected by the bands.
Racial equality has long been an issue in ska. The music itself was born in the late '50s when Jamaican musicians mixed American R&B with mento, their own indigenous pop music. The result was a dance-happy hybrid marked by off-kilter guitar strokes and punchy horn phrasings. By the early '60s, artists such as Desmond Dekker, the Skatalites and the Wailin Wailers (featuring Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and a young Bob Marley) had embraced ska and were slowing it down into a groove-heavy sound called "rock steady," which would eventually be known as reggae.
During the late '60s and early '70s, reggae gained momentum and attracted an interracial, international following thanks to such visionaries as Chris Blackwell (the head of Island Records) and Jimmy Cliff (who became the first international reggae star after playing the lead in the 1973 movie The Harder They Come).
By the time Eric Clapton recorded his whitewashed version of Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" in 1974, reggae had hit the mainstream and most vestiges of ska were long gone. But in the late '70s, a second wave of ska bands -- nicknamed two-tone bands for their often multiracial lineups -- began to appear. British groups such as Madness, the Specials, the Selecter, and the English Beat breathed new life into the genre by mixing the edginess of new wave with the old-time ska rhythms. And of course they brought back the genre's trademark fashion accouterments: natty suits, slim ties, and porkpie hats.
But ska was always more than a fashion statement, and Park is not the only person on the Ska Against Racism Tour who would like to see some of the old traditions -- such as lyrical calls for social change -- brought back into modern-day ska compositions. Robert "Bucket" Hingley, who fronts the Toasters (and heads Moon Ska Records, possibly the largest ska label in the world), would like to see more topical lyrics as well.
"I think through your art you should express your sociopolitical and sociocultural beliefs," says Hingley. "It should have a message, even if that message is only to go out and have a good time. There's nothing wrong with using party music to educate people."