The Ska's the Limit
Amplified "sound systems" were hired out for dances and on Saturday nights the back streets and dance halls of Kingston came alive -- and the dream was born -- music sprung from the basic beat of Jamaica and all the U.S.A. influences and the power and beauty and joy of the earth. Rhythm and Blues, the beat now called Ska, made all feet dance, since Jamaicans and visitors who heard it recognized that rhythm deep inside themselves as truly Jamaican. The beat was here to stay!
-- Liner notes: The Birth of Ska,
Trojan Records, 1989
It took Fort Lauderdale resident George Kindle about 30 years to find the true Jamaican within himself. If that seems an excessive length of time for a young man to discover his own Caribbean sensibilities, realize that Kindle is a white guy of Austrian-Irish descent who grew up in Amherst, New York, a genteel suburb of Buffalo, the third and last child of prominent Republican parents. William Kindle, George's father, ran Jack Kemp's congressional campaign in 1972. Pat Nixon kissed George's cheek when he was a baby. The Kindle household in Amherst was no place for a boy to discover his deep Jamaican roots.
That came later. By his recollection, the first time Kindle heard ska music specifically was in 1978, and it was performed by a contemporary ska revival group from Great Britain called the Specials. Though the Specials took their musical cue from ska's original Jamaican practitioners, they added to it an element of British punk. At the time Kindle thought it was punk, pure and simple. Years later, when ska had all but come to subsume Kindle's musical consciousness, he admired the Specials and their music for exactly what they were: bastardized descendants of true ska. The Specials were far removed from the brassy, exotic, eminently danceable sound forged in Jamaica during the waning years of the island's dependence on Great Britain.
Ska was the sound of American R&B, jazz, big-band, and early soul music assimilated and eventually transformed by myriad Jamaican producers and musicians. The most legendary of the early ska pioneers was an inventive record producer named Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. Working with the cream of Jamaica's jazz and big band musicians in the late '50s, Dodd began experimenting with the highly Americanized music that permeated Jamaican culture throughout the '40s and well into the subsequent decade. Within Kingston's Federal Studios, Dodd encouraged his practiced musicians to emphasize the upbeat of popular New Orleans shuffle rhythms. (Emphasis on the upbeat is known today as the distinctive hallmark of reggae.) Then he encouraged drummer Lloyd Knibb to quicken the rhythmic pace of the music. "When I [went] to the studio," Dodd explained years later, "it wasn't to make listening music, it was to please the dancing public. To make pure, driving music."
By 1964, the year George Kindle was born, Jamaican dance music was essentially ska music. Ska acts like Derrick Morgan, Owen Gray, the Skatalites, and the Maytals dominated the Jamaican hit parade. Fortified by the unrivaled popularity of ska music in Jamaica, a delegation of ska representatives manned a pavilion at the World's Fair in New York City. They were but one prong of a larger campaign touting ska as the next big thing in the United States.
It was an ill-fated crusade. Jamaica may have thrown off British rule in 1962, but by 1964 British rock bands had established an impregnable musical foothold on the American pop charts. Ska was simply no match for the British Invasion. Even in Jamaica, ska was soon supplanted on the hit parade and in dance halls by a brand of music that came to be known as rock steady, a slowed-down variant of ska that would eventually evolve into reggae. By the summer of 1966, the tattered remnants of ska had been cast into the dustbin of history for revivalists like the Specials and, later, curiosity seekers like George Kindle, to pick over at their leisure.
Kindle knew very little about ska when he moved to Broward County in early 1990 to take a job with an ad agency. Aside from his brief, passing dalliance with the Specials, the closest he had come to ska was an album of Bob Marley's reggae from the '70s. No one who knew Kindle had any reason to suspect that this good-natured, talkative, and altogether average young man would someday be spending a great majority of his free time trying to preserve and revitalize ska music in South Florida.
In 1994 ska was enjoying a resurgence in the U.S. among hip, middle-class white kids. Ska aficionados refer to this period as the beginning of ska's "third wave." (Commonly known as two-tone, the "second wave" of ska was coexistent with the rise and fall of punk in Great Britain in the late '70s. The Specials, for instance, were a second-wave ska band. "First wave" refers to the initial rise and popularity of ska in Jamaica.) At 30 years old, Kindle wasn't a kid any longer and so can hardly be blamed for his ignorance of the resurgence. Nonetheless, in his own roundabout way, he soon had a handle on the third wave.
Increasingly he tuned his car radio to 1170 on the AM dial, WAVS, "the heartbeat of the Caribbean." The predominantly modern reggae that the Davie station was playing didn't overwhelm Kindle, but he was intrigued by what he heard. Soon he was haunting local record stores, seeking out vintage '70s reggae. "I sort of de-evolved," he says. "I started out listening to Bob Marley, which is the height of reggae, and wondered where that came from. Next thing ya know, I'm back in 1952. I wound up listening to big-band music because of this."
Between Marley and the big bands of Jamaica, Kindle happened upon ska. "It just blew me away," he says, "and I got deeper and deeper into it." He learned of ska's resurgence in the United States when he picked up a compilation CD called Ska: The Third Wave. "That album opened up a wormhole to some universe I didn't even know existed," he says. "I thought I was all by myself. Finally I realized there was this huge ska scene going on."
Kindle dived into the scene. He frequented coffeehouses like the New World Café, the Station Pub, and the Mudhouse -- all now defunct -- where ska bands such as Megadog from Tampa and King 7 and the Soulsonics from Fort Lauderdale would occasionally play. He attended larger ska shows at the Edge and Squeeze. He befriended ska musicians and in 1995 began publishing his own ska zine, Stop Yer Messin' Round. From there Kindle, who is not a musician, took what seemed like the next logical step.
"I would go to a show," he says, "and a break would come. The sound guy would put on, like, a Metallica tape. I started thinking, What the hell's that all about? Everybody's dancing to this music and all the sudden they all walk away from the dance floor when this death metal comes on or something . So I'm like, shit, someone should be DJing music in between sets, so I started to kind of nudge in."
For four years and counting, Kindle has been a ska selector at various venues in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Selecting, he explains, as opposed to DJing, is the proper Jamaican term for what Kindle does. A Jamaican DJ, he continues, is someone who "toasts," or, in other words, talks and sings into a microphone while records are playing. Kindle, who goes by the name Selector Judge K when he's working, generally doesn't toast. Aside from that distinction, he says, "I don't call myself a DJ because I found that, when I did, everybody wanted me to play rave music."
The roots of selecting go back to the formative years of ska when different men with different "sound systems" would compete in the dance halls and on the back streets of Kingston for the weekend dance audience. The competition was fierce and contentious and sometimes broke out in violence. Apparently the lone ska selector in the area, Kindle is free from the traditional hazards of the trade.
His most reliable job is at Shakespeare's Pub & Grill in Wilton Manors. Kindle began doing a weekly gig at Shakespeare's in June 1997 but tapered that back to a monthly affair in March of this year. He draws an interesting crowd of anywhere from 40 to 60 people, which makes Shakespeare's a pretty crowded joint. Old English and Irish pub regulars show up, many of whom are familiar with the second wave of ska music that was popular in Britain in the late '70s. They mix with the younger crowd of stylishly dressed ska enthusiasts that Kindle attracts. "It's healthy," he says. "The older and younger people can hang out. I think you need cross-generational stuff going on. It's a pretty ugly world if you can't talk to each other."
Kindle selects mostly first- and second-wave ska. Like the old-timers and the kids, he doesn't care much for the slick pop that exemplifies much of ska's third wave. Unsurprisingly it is the third wave that is now in vogue among much of ska's international audience, though its popularity has receded since its peak days in the mid-'90s. Kindle thinks ska music will crest again soon. When it does, he figures, it will be nicely imbued with a touch of swing.
With a few heartening successes, Kindle has been trying of late to get some of the younger crowd to DJ and select themselves. Beyond that he is presently financing and promoting his first big ska show this coming Sunday night. If the show goes off well, he intends to promote others, particularly since no one else is. "I champion the cause of ska," he says. "I want to demystify the whole concept of promoting a show and throwing a good party with good music."
Contact David Pulizzi at his e-mail address:
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