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Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation

Duncan Heining By

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Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation
Heather Augustyn
163 pages
ISBN: # 978-0-8108-8449-6

Heather Augustyn's Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist offers an excellent study of a gifted but troubled man that succeeds both as analysis and narrative. By contrast, Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation is a less successful piece of work. It does have its strengths, however. Augustyn is particularly strong in her account of the origins of the Jamaican music of ska, a precursor in some senses of reggae.

She locates this successfully in terms of its musical sources in jazz and local vernacular musics and places it effectively in the social and cultural and economic context of 1960s Jamaica, as the once British colony emerged to independence and statehood. Sadly, for many islanders, as Augustyn notes, independence did not mean freedom from poverty or oppression. For this reason, Augustyn positions ska as a music of the working classes, albeit one ripe for exploitation by calculating entrepreneurs and politicians. She is also very skillful in her discussion of the relationship between ska and jazz, a connection that becomes harder to discern when one hears ska's musical successors, rocksteady and reggae. In addition, she brings to life the different personalities who helped shape ska's destiny musically and economically, noting as she does so those individuals who most benefited socially and financially. Needless to say, these were rarely the musicians themselves.

The third section of the book examines the impact of ska in North America from the early 80s onwards. I claim no expertise here but her account of this aspect of the music's history is convincing and coherent. At the same time, quite why this music, with no obvious roots in American culture, became the cult phenomenon that it did eludes any in depth analysis, aside from catch-all references to poverty, unemployment and racism. Augustyn alludes frequently to the attractions of the music's celebratory qualities. If that were its main attraction, then surely that is less a testament to ska's musical values and more one to the hedonism of American youth within a late capitalist, consumerist society. In a way, Augustyn hints at something along these lines. In accounting for ska's demise in the USA, she does make valid points about the inability of the music and its performers to expand its market beyond a core to peripheral audience. Once the peripheral section of its fan base moved on to something new, its capacity to survive was in jeopardy. She also suggests that ska's musical values—in the North American context— were out of step with its ability to express social values that might have bound and expanded its audience. It is unfortunate that such points are not developed further.

The section of the book that is, however, of most concern is that which refers to ska's migration to Britain in the early/mid- sixties and its later re-emergence amongst the 2Tone bands The Specials, Madness, The Selecter, The Beat et al. It is here that a far stronger editorial hand was needed. With regard to ska's later flowering, the emergence and activities of Rock Against Racism and the struggle against the racist and fascist National Front and British Movement were absolutely crucial. Yet, Augustyn deals with RAR in less than a page. RAR came into its own in 1978 with massive attendance at three youth carnivals featuring punk and reggae bands, such as the The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Elvis Costello, Aswad and the remarkable Misty in Roots. More than that, several hundred gigs took place across the UK involving many of the major groups of the period. RAR and the Anti-Nazi League did not just succeed in challenging avowedly racist organisations but did much to set an agenda for anti-racist activity and race relations in Britain.

It is as if Augustyn has grasped the bare bones of the UK music scene within which ska emerged in the 60s and flourished again in the late 70s and early 80s. She has then attached this to an even sketchier set of assumptions about British social, political and economic life during these years. As a result, her analysis is inevitably flawed. Unfortunately, there are many examples of this problem and it matters because the brief for this book as part of the Scarecrow Press Tempo series is to offer titles:

"[T]hat explore rock and popular music through the lens of social and cultural history, revealing the dynamic relationship between musicians, music, and their milieu."


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