Origins of the Word Ska

From the Daily Gleaner, April 3, 1963.

From the Daily Gleaner, April 3, 1963.

A documentary on the origins of the word “ska” cited an article from the Daily Gleaner on March 17, 1964 as the first printed mention of the word (You can view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIOxometSgg). However, I have found three instances that predate that source, thanks to Roy Panton. Why does this nitty-gritty matter? Well it is used by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as the source date, and so it is important to the nerdy etymological types, and I like to dabble in that area from time to time, but it is also important to those who study music history because, wait for it, wait for it . . . ska was originally spelled “SCA!”

 

In a recent conversation with Roy Panton, he said to me, “You know that ska was originally spelled S-C-A, don’t you?” Here I had researched and written about ska for years and I had no idea. I had to find out if this was true. So a search of the Jamaica Gleaner, through all kinds of irrelevant results as you can imagine, pulled up four instances of  “SCA,” three of which occur in 1963. One is above and here are the others, so you can see them too.

From the Daily Gleaner, October 6, 1963.

From the Daily Gleaner, October 6, 1963.

 

From the Daily Gleaner, December 8, 1963.

From the Daily Gleaner, December 8, 1963.

From the Daily Gleaner, May 22, 1964.

From the Daily Gleaner, May 22, 1964.

How did this happen that ska was originally spelled this way? Well I would venture a guess to say that it was an oral term before it was ever a written term, and that’s the way it sounds. I know from teaching my own kids a method of phonics so they could learn to read that the C and K both make the hard sound, and so it is understandable that SCA could be a spelling.

 

The first time the spelling “SKA” appears in print is indeed in the March 17, 1964 article cited in the documentary for OED officials, although, as the article notes, the genre had existed already for years. In fact, I, along with most historians, recognize the song “Easy Snappin’” by Theo Beckford as the first example of a ska song. When the word itself was first used, and how it came to represent the genre, is subject of much debate. I side with the argument that it is an onomatopoeia for the sound the guitar makes. There are other valid theories as well that are put forth in this documentary, and every Jamaican pioneer will give you their own take on it as well.

 

Below is the article from March 17, 1964 which I have typed under the image so it is readable, and I would also like to note that it is not until British colonial culture recognizes this genre of music that it is actually written about in the press. Interesting.

From the Daily Gleaner, March 17, 1964.

From the Daily Gleaner, March 17, 1964.

 

Daily Gleaner, Tuesday, March 17, 1964

 

The “Ska” hits London

–but they call it Blue Beat

 

By Maureen Cleave

 

I suppose we’d all reckoned without Jamaica. Since the failure of that embarrassing calypso which we were told could sweep the nation — the nation remained unswept—we have tended to rule out the West Indies altogether.

Nowadays we get our hits from conventional sources like singing nuns and the Salvation Army. But in the West Indies music has always been the things.

In Jamaica, for instance, they buy records before they buy food. At last they have come up with something called the Blue Beat. We are now buying it and dancing to it.

 

In the Charts

I wouldn’t say we were lapping it up in our millions but we are going for it in a big way. There’s a blue Beat record in the charts and the London and Brighton clubs are riddled with it.

What is it? You may well ask. It’s like slow, pounding, monotonous, primitive rock with a strong accent on the off-beat. It depends on the monotony for its excitement. It has a slight roll to it and give the impression of having been inexpertly recorded (This is because it Jamaica it often is inexpertly recorded).

You don’t so much hear the African influence as sense that it is there. The words are indistinct and mercifully disassociated from love and boys and girls. They are about animals or parents or children. King of Kings, the one in the hit parade, is about a lion. Others have titles like “Parents Do Not Provoke Your Children to Wrong” or “Honour Your Father and Mother.”

 

His score: 200

I got the story from a rather handsome young man of 26 with reddish hair called Chris Blackwell. He comes from Jamaica and arrived in this country two years ago. Since then he has released over 200 Jamaican records.

He used to pile them into his Mini Minor and flog them himself from record shop to record shop. Nobody ever played any of his stuff on the BBC or gave him much encouragement.

Now he has a white Jaguar and an office in Kilburn with piles of records climbing up the walls. Next week EMI takes over his distribution but Mr. Blackwell rather preferred it when the business was small. “It keeps it a fight.”

Towards the end of the fifties the Jamaicans got keen on rhythm and blues, particularly a record called No More Doggin’ sung by Roscoe Gordon. They got hold of this beat cheered it up a bit, added some cute lyrics and called it Ska—an onomatopoeic word for the sound the guitar made.

From 1959 onward this was all the rage. We called it Blue Beat here because of the label it was issued on. Cleverest of all the Jamaican producers was Prince buster, now 28. There was Carolina, Humpty Dumpty and his own song Madness in which he just sings the word Madness over and over again. These sold extremely well here and the whole thing started to catch on last summer.

 

Buster says . . .

            As well as Madness, the initiated few bought a lovely thing originally entitled ‘Yea Yea’ but re-named ‘Housewife’s Choice’ specially for the English Market.

            Prince Buster calls himself Prince Buster the voice of the People. He, Duke Reid, Sir Coxson, and King Edwards are the Jamaican names to conjure with. They are fond of titles.

            They treat the record like the eighteenth century lampoon. Prince Buster was once furious with a man called Derrek Morgan who left his employ to go to work for a Chinese competitor.

            Prince buster promptly sang a very insulting song called ‘Blackhead Chinaman.’ It went, “Are you a Chinaman, are you a black man.”

            Everybody asked themselves: “What’s Buster saying now?” and bought the record like mad.

            Quick as a flash came Derrick Morgan’s reply, a song called ‘Blazing Fire.’ It went: “you said it and you are a blazing fire.”

            Blazing Fire indeed. How very rude.

14 comments

  1. Thanks Heather.
    I do appreciate your work. You prepare and present top quality information which helps me very well with the Heritage Of Ska Festival I have been struggling to put on for more than 5 years now. Good luck with the book. I have not yet bought my copy but I will soon. Happy New Year and One Love.

  2. I cannot say nothing more appropriate and true than what Michael already said about your work, dear Heather, so I add only that in many years I found out on records so many different/wrong spelling of the same names (one for all “Roland Alphonso/Alphanso”) and titles (“Shank I Shack” that should have been “Chiang Kai-shek”) that I am not at all surprised that Jamaicans provided us at last with the wrong spelling of the original name of our beloved music. Now, after your very interesting and (as usual) well documented article, I wait for the first band who will claim to play original SCA!

  3. First let me congratulate you on your blog, which I only just discovered before Christmas and have just finished working my way through the postings. I’m a fairly recent convert to the ska first wave, especially the really early stuff and still immersing myself in lots of music and reading.

    I was intrigued to see your latest post as I have often wondered the origin of the term “ska”. Taking your lead I had a look at the archives of the Daily Gleaner and I think I may have taken “ska” (rather than “sca”) back to October 1963. There is a letter in the Daily Gleaner, 9 October 1963, Page 8, commenting on an article in an earlier edition in regard to the music played on Jamaican radio, from which I have taken an excerpt;

    “There is however one unpleasant musical form known as the “Ska Beat” which is popular on the evening programmes of both stations. I think this is what Mr. McGann describes as: “…imbecillic, barbaric, unmelodious, etc” In criticising this type of music, I agree with Mr. McGann for it is high time these meaningless, cacophonious musical monstrosities were prohibited on the air waves”

    Donald Topping
    Montego Bay
    2 October 1963

    All rather unfair and uncomplimentary I’m sure we all agree!

      • Also, I think the fact that “Ska Beat” is being used by someone who is probably of an older generation in writing a letter to a newspaper means it must have been in use by the younger generation for quite a long time previously.

        Just another thought to throw in. I’m a big fan of Lloyd Clarke’s work and listening to his 1963 record Japanese Girl, there is evidence which may fall between the “scat” and “scavoovie” theories. Here he uses a lot of nonsense words in a scat style, but some are very close to scavoovie.

        • I always sided with this theory, Merv, and thank you for this evidence. I thought it was a jazzy, scatty, hepcat kind of lingo thing. It’s a jazz culture ska comes from so it makes sense that jazz syntax would be involved. I will look into this Lloyd Clarke work so thank you and love the dialogue.

  4. Hi Heather,
    It’s interesting to see the “sca” versus “ska” spelling and the discussion about them. No matter what the truth is, “sca” was fleeting and rare, and “ska” was more popular and lasting! When one heard “middle class” people pronounce “ska” when it was becoming popular, the tended to pronounce it in a refined almost pseudo-British “posh” way that came out more like “scah” compared to the more “vulgar” and guttural “skya” sound of the “downtown” working class!! Perhaps this accounted for the difference in spelling initially.

    Is it fair to say that Derrick Morgan’s “Housewife’s choice” was “..renamed specially for the British market..”? As I recall, Morgan’s explanation was that the song was released on the usual blank label (pre-release) and got so many requests by female callers on RJR’s morning show in the slot that the “housewives” would be listening to at home that it was released with the name “Housewives’ choice”, though the name bears no relationship to the lyrics of the song.

  5. Hi Heather,
    I discovered your blog earlier today & I’m extremely fascinated with every one of your pieces, as well as with your readers’ various comments.

    I have really enjoyed reading your articles particularly “Dissension in the Ska camp” and “Duke Reid The Trojan”.

    I totally agree with the comments posted by my friend and former school-mate Carlos Escoffery regarding both the origins of ska, as well as his take on the seminal Jamaican hit “Housewives Choice”.The received pronounciation that was (& continues to be) spoken by many non-working class Jamaicans would undoubtedly create a totally different sound for the word ska. Carlos’ analysis is “spot-on” or maybe I should say that he is “clinically accurate” as expected.

    In addition, about 25 years ago, I had a very interesting and detailed discussion with a very close friend of mine who is one of Jamaica’s esteemed musicologists. He confirmed that Patsy & Derrick Morgan’s hit that was originally called “Yeah, Yeah” was renamed “Housewives Choice” solely as a result of it’s undeniable and phenomenal popularity among that segment of Jamaica’s female radio audience in the 1960’s..

    In fact, my friend also mentioned that the record’s new name was suggested by one of RJR’s pre-eminent announcers of the day who was amazed by the constant requests that the station received for the song to be played on the morning shows and on Saturday mornings in particular.

    A few years later, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Derrick Morgan who reiterated this story almost verbatim…what more could I ask for?.

    I’m certainly looking forward to reading all your future articles. I’ve already begun to spread the word re your blog to all my music loving friends.

    Thanks for the great read…keep them coming.

    God Bless.

  6. Hi Ian,

    Great to have you on board! This is our music and helped to form us as “children of independence”!

    I’m no preeminent music scholar, but people like you and I who grew up on the music know how it influenced and helped to form us and shape our personalities.

    I’m disappointed sometimes when I read comments and critiques about ska (and the rocksteady and reggae that came out of it) that discuss it merely as a “dance” or pure art form without appreciating the whole context of the development of the music and it’s socio-cultural importance at the time.

    I can’ t put it as elegantly as some, or write it down as well as Heather, but the effect of the ska movement on us and our ilk can’t be couched along the lines of just music – it was and is too big for that!

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