Music News

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.