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Books about Ska by Heather Augustyn

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Skastalt Theory

I recently read a post by a newly popular ska musician who claimed that ska was defined by the rhythm. True. However, my gut cringed. I thought, “What about the horns?! It’s all about the horns! Everything is better with horns!” But then I quickly realized that many fantastic ska bands do what they do sans horns, which doesn’t make them any less ska. And certainly horns can’t be the defining element of ska because that rhythm is crucial. But it’s not just the rhythm of course, because that same rhythm can be found in many other genres of music. In fact, this morning I was lazily waking up while some lame Tom Hanks movie played on TV and I suddenly heard that same rhythm—the “off beat,” the stress on the one and the three instead of the “downbeat” on the two and the four. It was gospel. The rhythm was clapped by the choir who sang along. So, as many social media posters opine, what is ska? And I soon realized that a little gestalt theory (or skastalt, if you will) might be the answer—the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Ska is not only rhythm. It is not only horns or a chop on a guitar. It is not only tempo or style or attitude or politics or humor—it is all of it, and more. It is embedded in a culture of innovation and blending other forms. From its origins in Kingston, Jamaica in the late 1950s, ska came from other forms—jazz, rhythm & blues, and mento. From this tradition, ska (and most all musical genres, for that matter) has been created through innovatively blending other forms. Listen to almost any ska song and one can hear and feel the genres that merge together through the influences of the creators and the zeitgeist. It is like any art form—it’s hard to define, hard to pin down, exactly what it is. Which is why we give simple answers that don’t fit—like “fast reggae with horns,” or “a precursor to reggae” or “a form of Jamaican jazz” or any other quick retort we blurt out before diving into a deeper explanation.

It is that deeper explanation that is required here, and no social media post or even blog post can get to the heart of it. It is too rich. It must be heard and felt and understood. Ska is a serious art form, and I don’t mean the word “serious” here in an emotional sense—I mean it in a substantive sense. It is what my fellow authors Marc Wasserman, Aaron Carnes, Stephen Shafer, and Lee Morris have been arguing in their treatises of ska. It warrants a book—many of them. Which is why some of us, or maybe I am just talking about myself here, admittedly, can become snobby at times and dismissive of expressions of ska that we think cheapen the whole of ska—because we feel in our bones that there is so much more that needs to be said and understood and heard. Whatever one’s output of ska be—whether it is cloaked in a pork pie hat or a Hawaiian shirt—it is part of this whole. This massive genre. This movement and community. And that is all worth celebrating.

What are your thoughts? Chime in below.

1 thought on “Skastalt Theory

Steve Douglas May 29, 2021 at 2:59 pm

Ska is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Gestalt uses similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, figure/ground, and symmetry & order to affect the way our brains process . All of these are applicable in talking about Ska music. Nice one, as usual, Heather. I will consider these concepts during Sunday songwriting session tomorrow. Thank you!

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