Ska takes over Jamaica

August 1962: Number 21 in London’s Guardian’s series of the 50 key events in the history of world and folk music. This one was written by Neil Spencer. We are posting the items from the series that deal with Caribbean music and performers. For the full series follow the link below.

The origin of ska is much contested. Did Jamaica’s revolutionary, back-to-front beat originate from listening to rhythm’n’blues carried on AM radio signals all the way from Miami, or the New Orleans hits played with heavy bass by local DJs at 1950s soundsystems? Prince Buster claims it arrived when he instructed his studio band to “change gear”. Others say “ska” refers to the music’s offbeat guitar stroke. What’s uncontested is that with Jamaican independence in 1962, ska took over the island, a celebration of youthful exuberance proclaimed by the likes of Prince Buster, Alton Ellis and Jimmy Cliff, and refined into a jazzier sound by the Skatalites, featuring trombone genius Don Drummond, on hits such as Eastern Standard Time.

No tropical society can live at ska-speed for long, and the pace soon slowed to rock steady and reggae. Ska’s vigour was seized on by Britain’s 2-Tone movement in the late 70s, as the Specials, Madness, the Selecter et al played old hits such as One Step Beyond and wrote new ones such as Too Much Too Young. The 2-Tone bands helped turn ska into a global brand.

For the original report—and access to the full series—go to

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