The Origins of Ska

Colonization of the Caribbean region by European settlers led to a hybridization of African and European culture in the Caribbean, including their musical preferences.  In colonial Jamaica, the struggle of the black majority’s oppression by the upper class whites was dominating the social and political scene.  The musical history of this period is similarly colored by conflict and discrimination.  Drawing together their goals for the future, the people of Jamaica chose to use their music to address these social and political issues.

Rumba box
Rumba box, which is played by plucking the metal strips with your fingertips.

Ska music surfaced in the 1960s out of the mento genre that was popular up until the 1950s.  Africans brought mento music to Jamaica in the 1700s, and it remained a part of Jamaican culture until it was overshadowed by the ska movement in 1960.  The three most important characteristics of mento music are singing, dancing, and drumming.  It incorporates elements of the French quadrille and the English maypole dance with African vocals and rhythmic patterns.  Popular instrument choices for mento music were guitars, banjos, shakers, and a rumba box, which is sometimes called the African thumb pianos.  Mento music has a slow and rhythmic sound that became much faster as it approached the start of the ska movement.  Throughout these musical developments, Jamaica was also moving forward politically, eventually earning their independence from the United Kingdom in 1962.  Coincidentally, this lined up with the start of the ska movement, making ska music a useful resource to help assert Jamaican national identity and pride at this time.  Because of this, ska music is known as the first indigenous Jamaican pop music.