First off, just let me say that yes, the title of this CD is accurate—this is indeed real Jamaican ska, dating from what sounds like two sets of sessions back in ‘63 and ‘64. The Real Jamaica Ska is the real deal, no doubt about that, and folks new to ska would be well-advised to check it out. Now, a caveat: said new folks would also be well-advised to NOT view what’s on this collection as representative of the whole of the ska genre, or even of the early recordings.
Quick history lesson: ska came out of Jamaica in the mid-20th century, a fusion of American soul and R&B and the more Latin- and African-influenced sounds of the Caribbean. It started in the hands of legendary Jamaican musicians like The Skatalites, who laid down the blueprint for the genre for the next half-century to come with a syncopated rhythm, jazz-style horns, and that ever-present “chicka-chicka” guitar. By 1964, however, ska was no longer merely a Jamaican phenomenon, but instead, as Jimmy Cliff himself attests here in “Ska All Over the World,” “Believe me, people/the ska was all around.” The ska sound had been transplanted to Europe, the States, South America, Canada, and plenty of points in-between. It had become popular music.
Ergo, these sessions are fairly highly-polished (for the time, that is), radio-friendly stuff, a far stretch from some of the earlier material played at Kingston block parties. The Real Jamaica Ska represents the “middle” era of Jamaican ska music, after the sound had hit it big and started to be commercialized (hell, this collection even credits Curtis Mayfield for the production on all but two tracks, not something you would’ve seen much in the early days). By this time, the emphasis was shifting from the musicians, who were largely responsible for the creation of the style, to vocalists and singing groups doing ska. The best analogy I can come up with (which isn’t a great one, mind you, as I’m a jazz idiot) is of the era in American music where jazz musicians themselves faded somewhat from the limelight and were replaced by jazz vocalists of the “crooner” style—this is that type of music, transplanted to the Caribbean.
In a sense, this music might almost be considered more “pure” ska, since it more closely resembles Motown-style American soul (widely thought to be the initial inspiration for the music) than some earlier work; groups like The Charmers and The Techniques aren’t too far removed from The Four Tops. The Lord Creator tracks, as well, like “Don’t Stay Out Late” and “Golden Love,” sound like they very well could’ve come out of the Detroit studios—both are sweet, swinging ska love songs, with the erstwhile calypso artist’s vocals way up front. And that’s not necessarily bad; Lord Creator is a fine singer, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that after a while, the songs start to blend into one another, and that is bad. A lot of the tracks on here follow a definite formula, music-wise: there’s a subdued ska backdrop, over which a smooth, charismatic singer (or group of singers) croons sweetly about love-gone-wrong.
The songs that break the pattern are the standouts here, like both of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ contributions, the classic “Simmer Down” and their oddly African-sounding rendition of the gospel tune “Going Home”; those two songs, in particular, don’t conform to the ska-singer standard followed throughout. Jimmy Cliff’s mournful “Trust No Man” and Lord Creator’s “Man to Man” both break out, too, by following a philosophical train of thought instead of the usual subject matter. The only really intriguing song that does follow the pattern is “Remember I Told You,” by The Techniques, a dance-y number where the singer actually sounds pretty desperate, and which features a decent handclaps-and-organ solo bit. Beyond that, I had a hard time telling apart tracks like “You Are The One” (by Winston Samuel) and “Misery” (by The Charmers).
I shouldn’t be so down on this CD, I realize—I’m talking strictly as somebody who really loves the instrumental stuff, so I’m biased against the “crooner” style of ska (although I do dig Hepcat and The Adjusters, I’ll admit). Viewed from the outside, with no knowledge of what else is possible in the ska genre, The Real Jamaica Ska is a fine collection, and a nice glimpse into a particular period in musical history. Just keep in mind, like I said above, that it’s not the be-all and end-all of ska.