Horning in on the local ska scene — is the genre still alive?
By ALBERT CHING
Is ska dead?
Only a few years ago, you couldn’t enter a shopping mall without hearing the bouncy, horn-driven music on “The Impression That I Get” by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and songs by Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris were popping up all over modern rock radio.
Lately, however, ska has been as far off the national music radar as the Benedictine monks, and former genre stalwarts such as No Doubt have distanced themselves almost completely from their ska roots.
The genre has seemingly has been discarded on the short-lived-musical-craze scrap heap alongside the mid-’90s swing revival and the late-’90s Latin music explosion.
Yet Arizona still retains an active local ska scene, mainly through a strong community of dance-happy supporters and the bands who perform for them.
“Ska fans seem to be drawn to the carefree aspect of (the music). There are many complex beats, rhythms, horn lines, and there is always so much going on that it is very hard to stand still,” says ska enthusiast Ashley Harris, 18, of Scottsdale.
“There’s a passion behind it,” says Dave Gironda, who plays trumpets with local ska bands Workshirt Wonder and the Wiggums. “It’s real and it’s fun.”
Ska music dates to late 1950s Jamaica and was a precursor to the reggae music for which the island is famous. Ska has gone through a couple of popular revivals since: The “second wave” of early-’80s Britain featured bands such as The Specials, Madness and The English Beat, and the “third wave” of the mid-’90s featured the aforementioned American groups.
Despite enthusiasm for ska in the East Valley, some veterans of the scene say that while the music is alive, it may not be well. “My opinion on the ska scene right now is that it’s really not as thriving as I think it should be,” says Ryan Sims, trombone player with local ska standouts Captain Squeegee and the Soap Suds.
He blames elitism among a fan base sometimes too insular for its own good.
“I think it’s almost how it is in high school — you have a clique,” he says.
Local promoter Ryan Avery — who operates www.azska.com, a Web site listing local ska shows and links to local bands' Web pages, and organizes a monthly ska night at Phoenix art gallery Four White Walls — also has noticed the incestuous nature of the scene.
“You get the same kids coming to every show, doing the same dance moves, seeing the same bands, talking to the same friends and wearing the same clothes,” he says.
Need for evolution
Some feel that the genre places limits on itself.
“Ska is usually taken as this happy-go-lucky, crazy, joke-around stuff, and I think that’s part of how it’s lost its power,” says Danny Torgerson, trumpet player of Captain Squeegee. “Reggae started as a political uprising, and now it’s just dance music.”
Musical evolution beyond the traditional boundaries of what is considered ska might infuse the genre with new life.
“The problem is that there’s the same old stuff with every band,” says Sims. “We’re saying, ‘Push it and don’t stay within the boundaries of what is ska.’ ”
Captain Squeegee recently has started operating outside those boundaries in their music, a move that's generated mixed results with their fans but is something the band feels is vital to achieve relevance on a grander scale.
“The ska scene doesn’t necessarily take a liking to us so much, because we’re trying to do different stuff,” Sims says.
Maybe what's needed is as simple as a few original steps out on the floor.
“We need new dance moves,” Gironda says. “All it takes is new ideas!”