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Righting wrongs: Carnes’s “In Defense of Ska” comes out swinging

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Righting wrongs: Carnes’s “In Defense of Ska” comes out swinging (Photo of the author by Amy Bee)

Writer Aaron Carnes was tired of seeing his favorite musical genre become a sitcom punchline or used as the butt of a joke in a random tweet.

Ska music was hatched in Jamaica in the late 1950s. A precursor to reggae, ska in its purest form blends elements of calypso with American R&B and jazz. Other genres later melded with ska, including rock, metal and punk.

The genre has a deeply diverse and rich history, but Carnes says popular culture has mostly reduced its impact to a brief period in the mid-1990s when ska reached a level of mainstream popularity with bands like Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

Carnes said he set out to correct this miscalculation and maybe even turn some new fans onto ska with his book “In Defense of Ska” (Clash Books), a collection of detailed essays, stories, interviews and investigative music journalism. The author admits it’s a book with an attitude, but then again, so is the subject at hand.

“In Defense of Ska” is a deep dive into ska’s past and present, with fascinating stories about some of the genre’s most significant players, some well-known and others still obscure.

Carnes is music editor for an alternative weekly published in Santa Cruz, California, and a music writer for several Bay-area publications. He conducted more than 100 interviews for “In Defense of Ska,” speaking with musicians from the 1980s to the present, including some non-ska performers who revealed their secret dalliances with the genre.

A number of previously unknown tales emerged from those interviews, from musicians, fans, and behind the scenes players. Tales relating to disparate figures ranging from Walt Disney to the real-life Fat Randy, protagonist in the song by Voodoo Glow Skulls, shed light on some of ska’s secret history.

The author traveled to Mexico, home to the biggest and most political ska scene on the planet, to report on the area’s most significant ska practitioners, their fans and the ska festivals that attract crowds of more than 25,000.

Carnes said he became a huge ska fan in the early 1990s, after punk had contributed to its evolution, with bands like Skankin’ Pickle, Fishbone and The Specials. He was a drummer for the ska band Flat Planet and says the underground ska scene of the early ‘90s was vibrant in clubs and with DIY record labels. He became immersed in the landscape, absorbing ska in all of its varying forms.

“There were hundreds of bands each approaching ska differently,” Carnes said during an interview. “Some were goofy, some were super-political, so you had this really diverse approach to ska.”

When the big record labels and MTV recognized the burgeoning underground ska scene of the mid-1990s (known as the genre’s third wave), Carnes says they cherry picked what they felt was most marketable which tended to be of the goofier variety.

“The Mighty Mighty Bosstones weren’t considered goofy but they were known for wearing plaid,” Carnes said. “Reel Big Fish were very much known for their Hawaiian shirts. People new to the genre sort of assumed these visual touches went hand in hand with the music.”

Carnes equates that notion with how MTV propagated the belief that grunge music, personified by bands like Nirvana, was strongly connected to flannel fashion.

“A lot of grunge bands came out of the Seattle area,” Carnes explained. “It’s not related. People in Seattle are cold and wear flannel. They honed in on style and fashion and gave coverage to about six bands, ignoring a hundred other bands that were completely different.”

Once the widespread popularity of the bigger ska bands of the 1990s began to die out after a couple of years, Carnes said most people believed ska had only been a trend that faded away with them.

“As time progressed, everyone kind of laughed at the trend and the outfits,” according to Carnes. “They kind of felt embarrassed that for a couple of years, they became swept up in this trend.”

The dominant idea in mainstream pop culture regarding ska’s short-lived mid-90s popularity is that it embodied all the genre had to offer and now it was dead and ripe for jokes, according to Carnes. The reality was that countless ska bands were still out there creating art and fans like Carnes never stopped being fans.

More than just rock with horns, more than just an emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the bar, Carnes’s book emphasizes the notion that ska is life for those who play it and for the fans that keep it alive.

The author said he believes that a ska revival is currently percolating, citing unexplainable audience growth for a number of bands over the last 14 months.

“It’s hard for me to put together just how that happened during an absence of concerts during the pandemic,” Carnes said. “Usually, ska’s popularity has a lot to do with live shows.”

Carnes said he devoted seven years of his life to researching and writing “In Defense of Ska.” As a reader, I was impressed with his passion, his attention to detail and the compelling way he presented his subject even for those who may have scant knowledge of the genre.

“It’s important to me that people who aren’t diehard ska fans read the book,” Carnes said. “I feel that most ska-related books and documentaries don’t often leave the insular bubble of ska fans, and I’m hoping this book will make it out of the bubble.”

(“In Defense of Ska” by Aaron Carnes is available from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Carnes’s companion podcast, “In Defense of Ska” can be streamed or downloaded wherever podcasts are available. Connect with Carnes @InDefenseOfSka on Twitter and Instagram.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 12 May 2021 09:27

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