Latin Ska: My SKArwinian Theory

May 1, 2023 by Ed Mulligan

I was going to write an entirely different article when I started this. But when I began my research to bring you – my fabulous readers – some of my thoughts on the popularity of Latin ska, I suddenly realized a larger question that I just couldn’t shake. “How is it that ska has so many distinct sounds based on where it lives?”
A theory began to take shape, which I am entitling – in true ska-PUN-k fashion – my “Skarwinian Theory.” This theory postulates that since its inception, ska music has survived and flourished due to its ability to adapt and become fused with the host country and culture in which it resides, a “Natural Selecter” if you will.
Natural Selection is the key to survival
Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
I’m not going to get too scientific or dive too deep into the primordial pool. I am merely making an observation and presenting it to you. Maybe you will connect with the idea and understand the decades long reach that ska has throughout the music world. Most people that I have talked to during the course of my day do not even know what “ska” is, yet many have heard (and felt) its impact on the music they grew up with.
Now, having to explain ska to the average music listener is widely known to those who DO love and defend ska, and it is NOT news to you, dear reader. However, I bring this point up in order to support my theory (remember way back at the title of this article I might’ve mentioned that I had a theory?). And it is this: ska has survived, and sometimes thrived, because the music has been adopted by many cultures in different ways and is always reinventing itself to survive the horrible pop music apocalypse that every generation is confronted with.
And, ironically (Or is that coincidentally? Hmm… Nope! I’m sticking with ironically.), the music known as ska was born in the late 1950s – early ’60s alongside of Jamaica’s declaration of independence from Great Britain and was a cultural mixture of calypso, American jazz and R&B. So, even in its infant stage, First Wave ska was a blend of several music genres that may have provided some kind of genetic proclivity to adaption and musical longevity. Early greats included, Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and and Prince Buster.

As ska began to wane in popularity with the rise of reggae and rocksteady in Jamaica, it traveled abroad to find a new home in England. Jamaican immigrants were enticed to move to the U.K. to help rebuild the country after WWII with its post-war reconstruction.

The youth of both cultures, and the musical creativity that emerged under a conservative government at the time, gave birth to what is now known as two-tone ska and a British Second Wave gave us bands like The Specials, Madness, Bad Manners, The English Beat, The Toasters, The Selecter, and so many others. We have the first migration and adaptation that dramatically changed the sound when British early alternative rock and ska combined and enjoyed a wave of “popularity” in its renewed form. Films such as “Dance Craze” capture the era in its full glory.

Let’s jump ahead another decade or so where we see that the two-tone era had been rather dormant on the pop music scene and we are confronted with yet another infusion of ska. In the 1990s, up-and-coming alternative and punk rock bands in the U.S. were showing signs of an infection. Bands like Goldfinger, No Doubt, Save Ferris, Less Than Jake, Rancid, The Pietasters, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, and others were creating a Third Wave of ska in the United States.

Ska-punk had emerged in the MTV era of flashy music videos and music festivals like Vans Warped Tour and Lollapalooza. These and MANY more bands that had adopted the rhythms and scratchy “up-stroke” guitars of the two-tone era made ska relevant to their culture of tattoos, video games, and skateboards. So, yet again, ska had made itself known to the music scene and lived to fight the radio waves another day.
While the Bosstones were dubbed the Godfathers of Ska-Core, A Southern California band was becoming extremely influential in the Latin community. With their take on ska, Voodoo Glow Skulls was a natural fit.

We are now another musical generation away from the ‘90s and I find that even though ska, two-tone and ska-punk had been keeping to themselves for a while, we are facing a Fourth Wave of ska popularity. Although there are a lot of the early bands still touring and selling out shows in both the U.S. and Europe, there is a whole new sound that is the symbiosis of South America and Latin countries and ska music. It comes with renewed vigor and amazing energetic live performances.
This music even has an old-timey ska-dad guy from New Jersey like myself searching out YouTube videos and buying albums with song lyrics that I’ll NEVER understand, but am very happy to rock out to in my earbuds while I commute to work.

Bands like The Ladrones (and I HIGHLY recommend that you check out their album “Salve”), Los Kung Fu Monkeys, Matamoska, Maldita Vecindad, Panteón Rococó, Sekta Core, La Resistencia, Los Mal Hablados, and SO MANY more are combining traditional Latin salsa and cumbia along with batucada and more with classic ska and ska-punk music.

Letting the cultural flavor and native horns of South American countries like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, etc. combine with the power of ska and ska-punk to a new generation of music lovers.

Central America has a band from Panama who has very much caught the soul of the genre. Check out a band called Rabanes. With infectious third wave ska-punk overtones with the two-tone undertone, this band has been a solid performer on the international scene.

I have seen firsthand the type of energy and the love the audience has for Latin inspired ska. It’s an amazing and passionate resurgence of music that pays its homage to earlier traditions and yet creates a whole new place for ska to live on.

I believe ska music is like a beautiful rescue mutt. It has been bred with many different breeds to make each generation of music more durable and less likely to get medical joint and skin disorders. A “New Breed” if you will, that will continue to evolve and adapt and keep the young pups skankin’ in the circle pits for generations to come.
As much as I have tried to explain my Skarwinian Theory (yes, I’m going to keep repeating it until it’s a thing) to you, and as much as I have a love of Latin ska of late, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that there is another huge example of how my theory is supported in the Asian ska community. I could write a whole article on just the bands that have been playing and performing ska in countries like Japan. And maybe someday I will. Thanks for reading!


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