Ska is the music from 1960’s Jamaica that preceded Reggae. In this piece, I want to talk about Ska. S-K-A … Ska.
At 17 years of age, a friend told me that a friend of hers wanted me to join his band. Apparently they played Country music and Ska.
She enthused, “Dave’s really excited about you playing the trumpet! He plays the trombone. He says you could help him get better because you’re a trained musician.”
I was lukewarm, swerving this Dave for weeks, but he was a persistent suitor. I finally agreed to join a band rehearsal in south London’s Forest Hill. It was a life-changing move.
The Forest Hillbillies were my first band. They were the best musical education I could have had. Three brothers, Matt, Bill and Dave, held the fulchrum and the rest of us completed this most glorious musical co-operative. We played Country and Ska, and our gigs were always a lot of fun. It also turned out that Dave was very musical. A real musician. It was he who improved me as a trumpeter, without question. My time with The Billies gave me many things but because of where it led me, I think its biggest gift was an introduction to Jamaican Ska.
Jamaica gained Independence in 1962. At the time, a new musical sound was being heard on the soundsystems around the island. Part-derived from the American jazz music stations picked up on radio sets in JA, legend has it that the patchy reception gave the American Jazz an off-beat as the signal oscillated in and out. Local musician imitated what they heard and Ska was born. There are many legends about Jamaican popular music but it’s one of the more logical ones.
Another is that the name “Ska” is onomatopoeic. It’s the sound the guitar makes when it plays that off-beat. Veteran Jamaican roducer Bunny ĺLee told me that, so I’m not arguing. In any case, once Ska appeared in my life, it never left.
In the sixties, a small collection of recording studios in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, were occupied full-time to produce music. The most famous was Studio One, run by legendary producer Coxone Dodd. Studio bands would play for hours, providing back to back instrumentals for a succession of singers. Young hopefuls and the more established would record songs to be pressed onto vinyl records and sent out for public consumption. The island’s sound systems would play them first and then maybe they’d get radio play.
There was also a huge overseas market as Jamaicans in Britain and elsewhere bought records for parties and gatherings that helped reconnect them with home. Back on The Rock, music was one way out of poverty for youngsters looking at a bleak future. International stars such as Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Marcia Griffiths and Desmond Dekker all started with Ska.
The actual sound of Ska, though, came from the instrumental musicians. For a time, the hot band was The Skatalites. Most of them came from Alpha Boys School, where Kingston’s orphans were placed for safety and schooling. It was run by an order of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy, and having visited there myself, this is one legend I can vouch for.
‘Alpha boys’, or Old Alpherians, can be located worldwide. As pupils, the school pointed them towards the horizon and encouraged them to think beyond it. Of those that took Music as a trade, many joined the military bands. Others joined the studio bands. Spearheading this rescue effort was the reboubtable Sister Ignatius. I first met her whilst reasearching a Ska documantary for BBC Radio 1. We sat on her balcony drinking cold lemonade, and she told me the stories.
“We would give the boys money to go to town and buy the latest tunes. Particularly tunes out own boys had played on, starting with any music by The Skatalites. Then we’d play the records out on our sound-sysem every Friday night,” she told me. “We’d all enjoy them, the staff and the boys. There was some wild dancing at times, to be sure, but we made sure it never got too out of hand.” Her eyes seemed to smile at the memories.
She paused to sip lemonade. I followed suit, looking out on the school yard below and mentally pinching myself. I checked my recording kit and encouraged Sister Ignatius to please tell me more.
“That first group, The Skatalites, were special. Don Drummond was a world-class trombonist. He was a quiet soul, prone to bouts of illness. It was very sad when he he had his trouble later on.” I was to discover that Drummond was detained in Bellevue psychiatric hospital after killing his female lover in 1965. He committed suicide four years later. Sister Ignatius seemed lost in reflection for a moment, before carrying on.
“I could see it in him, even in the early days when he was a student here. He was troubled. Except when he was playing his trombone. Then he was at peace.”
I took a few more gulps of iced-lemonade as I took all this in. I remember thinking that it sounded awful and tragic.
I visited Alpha a few times after that. I took my trumpet along and I was introduced to the school’s music director, Sparrow Martin. As I approached, he was encouraging the Alpha concert band through a slightly painful-sounding march. They carried on playing as their conductor turned to me. He spotted my trumpet case and, with a twinkle in his eye, asked me if I liked Ska. I said I did.
“Please, come and join us,” he invited.
I didn’t need asking twice. As I found a seat with the other trumpets, he tapped his baton. “Okay, boys. We welcome Mr Jon Preston, who will be playing with us as our guest today. Let’s start again, with ‘Music is my Occupation’ by Don Drummonds.” Sparrow counted us in, “One, Two, Three, Four ….”, and away we went.
As the song played on, and I heard it bouncing off the tin roof, I had goosebumps as my situation became timeless. I was at the birthplace of Ska, Jamaica’s first homegrown popular music, which would go on to become Rocksteady and then Reggae. In that moment, I knew I was at the source. It was thirty-three years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.
Plenty has changed since then of course, both in Jamaica and in the UK. Sister Ignarius has sadly passed, though Alpha Boys’ School is still open, on South Camp Road, Crossroads, near to downtown Kingston. Ska is no longer the music of the day, though it does resurface periodically. Reggae bacame international and through Bob Marley and others, it has kept the cultural spotlight firmly on Jamaica.
The Forest Hillbillies are not currently performing. That said, Dave is still an awesome musician and he’s still playing his trombone. At the risk of embarrasing him even further, he’s another legend I can vouch for. Thank you, Dave.