Ska music remains popular outside of the mainstream

By Dan Carlson

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that Plan 17, not Mile 21, performed at the show in afterHOURS, and that Reel Big Fish was a Sublime cover band.

As trumpets blasted and a reggae-punk beat filled the air, students stepped back and forth while swinging their arms in line with the rhythm.

These movements are typical of “skanking,” the trademark dance routine of live ska performances.

Ska music has roots in 1950s Jamaican calypso, American jazz and R’B, and went through many incarnations during its revivals through the ’70s and ’80s. But it is the genre’s ’90s transformation that stuck – when bands like Sublime, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Less Than Jake ruled the airwaves and combined reggae rhythms with punk grooves.

Boston-based ska band Westbound Train headlined a performance in afterHOURS last Wednesday, which also featured Mile 21 and In the Face.

Wednesday night’s show showcased the diversity of ska music. In The Face kicked off the night’s performances with a pop-punk influenced brand of ska that urged the crowd to sing along.

Mile 21, still heavily influenced by punk rock, was louder and less polished, and included more distorted guitars and intense vocals.

Westbound Train was more traditional and reminiscent of Jamaican ska.

Obi Fernandez, the lead singer and trombonist for Westbound Train, said he started playing ska when he was introduced to 1960s Jamaican ska band The Skatalites.

“I fell in love instantly,” he said. “I knew I had to play that.”

For some ska fans, it is this enthusiasm that makes the music appealing.

“I like the vibe you get from the band and the crowd during the show,” said Jason Caffelle, a senior music education major at Berklee College of Music. “It’s not just [the band] playing. It’s give-and-take.”

Though listening to ska music is more popular live, many students enjoy its recorded sound too.

“It is fun to dance to and fun to listen to,” said Drew Cornwall, a freshman environmental science major at Boston University. “It’s catchy.”

Steve Bennett, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, said he listens to ska because it is upbeat and positive.

“I’ve never been depressed while listening to ska,” he said.

But Caffelle said people can appreciate ska for more than its groove and energy.

“Any person can get down and listen to it, but you can understand it on a different level,” he said. “It has complex rhythms and a history behind it.”

After the ’90s revival died down, ska music was played less on MTV and mainstream radio playlists. Popular ska acts like Reel Big Fish, Streetlight Manifesto and Big D and the Kids Table kept the genre alive in the underground ska scene.

Professor Leon Janikian, the music industry program coordinator, said with ska music primarily underground, it allows the sound to evolve and grow. With major label influence, “creative freedom is compromised,” he said.

“Certainly, people have a want to make money and sell records, but they want to do it expressing themselves, not having me tell you this record is fine, but we don’t know how to market it, so it has to change,” he said.

Fernandez said while ska isn’t at its peak of mainstream popularity, the genre is still thriving.

“I think ska in general is in a boom right now,” he said. “I like where ska is. It is in the clubs, not on MTV.”

Bennett also said that he hopes ska does not become too popular again.

“Bands make much better music when they are not really big or depending on big labels or MTV,” he said.

But Janikian doesn’t rule out a potential comeback for the genre.

“I don’t think great music dies,” he said. “It may go into a period of diminished sales, but in music they have a term: It’s bubbling. It’s bubbling under and it’s always there, and absolutely makes a comeback. It wouldn’t take much either. Maybe just a hit record.”

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