I was saddened hear about the death of Desmond Dekker, one of the pioneers of the original Jamaican ska music scene (hear some of his music at Myspace). Ska, which Dekker and a handful of others invented in the early 1960s, is a kind of double-speed form of calypso that is generally upbeat and celebratory. It was a pop fad in Jamaica in the early 1960s that was reborn as a kind of multicultural pastiche in England with bands like Madness and The Specials in the late 1970s. Those bands were self-consciously racially integrated — often with black lead singers and white bandmates — and they were hugely commercially successful. The lead record label in this second wave of ska bands was 2 Tone Records, which got its name from its distinctive checkered logo, though “two tone” also clearly referred to the label’s multicultural, racially inclusive vibe.
I was a big fan of this type of music in high school and college, though I grew up during the ‘third wave’ of ska — after it had been reborn yet again as a kind of offshoot of American punk rock. As I bounced along to Operation Ivy in high school, I wondered: what about desi ska? The upbeat rhythm you find in The Specials (or earlier, in Desmond Dekker himself) is also key in Bhangra, and the two genres seem almost made for each other.
In fact, there was some ska-bhangra fusion back in the day, and there still is some today. If the mainstream record label was called 2 Tone Records, the desi version was Multitone Records, and it was founded in the early 1980s, just around when Brit-Asian Bhangra bands like Achanak and Premi were first starting to make records. (This was also, coincidentally, just after the peak of the 2-Tone Records era on the British music charts.) The vast majority of the CDs on the Multitone label were never available in the U.S., or were released in such small numbers here that they were (and are) impossible to find.
The best CD I have in the British ska-bhangra genre (or perhaps we should call it Punjabi ska) is a Multitone compilation that came out in 1992, Cultural FX’s Hareepa. Of the songs on that compilation (which is way, way obscure), the best song is a “Boliyan” (actually a version of ‘Gur Naal Ishq Mitha’) by a Bhangra band called Sahotas. You’ll never find the CD anywhere, but you can sample a few seconds of the ska-inflected Boliyan here (track 10).
If the Multitone experiment with ska kind of sputtered out, another desi experiment with Jamaican music exploded. Apache Indian’s “No Reservations” came out in 1993, and it was so catchy and novel that I pretty much forgot about the idea of desi ska for awhile. Apache Indian was doing ragamuffin reggae rather than ska, and he found a surprisingly large commercial niche (though I think he never really got past the status of a novelty act, either among desi audiences or among mainstream reggae fans).
But back to ska. Rishi Rich’s recent CD “The Best” also has a congenial Punjabi ska song on it, “Mainu Kaleyan Wekh Ke,” which you can listen to here (only works in IE; watch out for pop-ups). It’s actually a high point on a CD that is weighted down by a lot of downtempo R&B-sounding songs. The song comes completely out of nowhere.
I haven’t found much other desi-influenced ska music, though I am curious about the song on Neville Staple’s solo CD, called “Nachna (Indian ska)” with a Punjabi vocalist, KS Machan. Thus far, I haven’t been able to find the track anywhere.
And then there’s Sonic Boom Six, an extremely peppy straight-ahead third wave ska/punk band whose lead singer, Laila K, happens to be a Desi. I don’t hear any Punjabi language or musical influence in the songs on Myspace, though Laila does add in some lyrics about “growing up on the outskirts/ I’m a desi/ with a white boyrfriend” (rough transcription) in the band’s cover of The Might Mighty Bosstones’ “Knock on Wood.” Her manic energy and high-pitched voice remind me a little of MIA, though the style of music is obviously completely different.
And of course there’s Outernational, though I’m not sure I would strictly speaking call them a ska band. (I am of course a little biased in their favor because of the Sikh lead singer!) And Manish also talked about Stubhy (Kaustubh), the Indian lead singer of Lucky Boys Confusion here. But as with Sonic Boom Six, these bands all have singers who just happen to be desis.
I have a feeling there’s more out there (or there will be). I’m especially curious about whether people have tried to do musical fusion — the upbeat guitar/horns sound of ska with mixed with Punjabi dhol and tumbi. Though really, as long as people are having a good time with it, it’s all good as far as I’m concerned.
[PHOTO CREDIT ABOVE: Punk Rock Portraits]