Monday, January 23, 2006

Origins of Ska

Balderdash and Piffle (BBC2 tonight) investigated the origin of the word Ska. Four theories were explored: 1) the sound of a guitar note (sk), 2) from scat (eg scat singing), 3) skavoovie (apparently a word used by a certain Jamaican DJ of the period), and 4) Scatter (a friend of Prince Buster of that name). Interesting to see not only Buster but Byron Lee and King Stitt interviewed by Benjamim Zephania on the programme. None of the theories totally convinces me so I would be interested in suggestions. The earliest recorded reference to the word was said to be in March 1964 in an article in the Daily Gleaner by Maureen Cleave, who was a journalist on the London Evening News and who probably wrote the piece for that paper before it appeared in the Gleaner. Anybody got any other theories or proof of an earlier reference? For what it's worth I have a 45 by Sugar and Dandy released in 1964 called Let's Ska.


At 12:17 pm , Blogger ken major said...

Hi Nick,
The shame is that I was working for the London Evening News (Display Adverts) from '59 -66 and probably read the article as mentioned. However being a rocker and sitting with mods Ska was an alien music to my ears. Not so now but I assume Brixton has been well plundered for vinyl!
Enjoyed your biog.

At 7:24 pm , Blogger ChrisB said...

Given the title of the 64 record you have and the fact that the title feels so similar to a whole host of dance, reggae and other records I've come across over the years I would be inclined to suppose that 'ska' was seen as a dance style as well as a musical style at the time - in fact perhaps almost as a dance style first and before being recognised as a durable musical genre (as I guess it later became). That said it isn't titled Lets Do The Ska but that doesn't necessarily mean anything... intriguing!

When does Balderdash suggest it first appearing as a term - the article might be the first (or earliest surviving) written record but most things are in the vernacular of underground culture for a LONG while before that.

At 10:19 pm , Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for the comments from Ken and ChrisB. Hope you keep reading!. I guess I knew Ska as Blue Beat at the time (from the label) but according to Maureen Cleave it was Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) who called it Ska. He lived in Jamaica before making his fortune in the UK.

At 9:41 am , Blogger DaveC said...

This programme had me reaching for books on the subject and the following represents my conclusions to date.

Ska music came about as a result of the instigation of Clement Coxsone Dodd who felt that Jamaican music was too imitative of American black music. One Sunday in 1959 he called together guitarist Ernest Ranglin and bassist Cluett ‘Clue-J’ Johnson. Ska music, with its emphasis on the off-beat, was brought about as a result of this meeting.

As to the etymology of the word ‘ska’? ‘Skavoovee’ (a term of a approval) was a catchphrase at the time for which Clue-J was famous. How its abbreviation was first applied to this new style of music, when it was first applied or who applied it, is not known. The meanings of words develop and even change in time. So it is quite probable that the music was first called ska (the equivalent of ‘cool’ or ‘groovy’ from later times) and then came to mean the style of the music as it became popular and with the need for a word to describe it.

Another interesting (or anorak if you prefer) question is ‘what was the first ska record?’ This may result in the selection of a record which was made before the term ska was applied to the music. Allegedly it was ‘Easy Snappin’ by Theophilus Beckford which was issued in 1959. But was it called ska music at that time? The OED requires documented evidence of the use of the word and 1964 is obviously too late by several years. The evidence is no doubt in Jamaica and if they were to pay someone to ……

An interesting subject but all that matters is that the music still sounds wonderful today.

(Source of most of the above is Reggae Explosion)

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