Genre maintains a powerful presence in Calgary
Attending a ska show means witnessing the passion and energy of a group of seven or more musicians as they celebrate their love for ska music. You might see the horn section swaying with their instruments: saxophone, trumpet and trombone.
You might see the lead singer of a ska band pumping his or her fist in the air and yelling to the crowd to get them riled up for a fast-paced song, while the drummer goes wild in the back, to keep the quick pace going.
The audience can be quite large, from 100 to 200 people, if the show is well promoted or on a weekend. Or smaller, with friends of band members sipping beer, moshing and “skanking” – the dance done to ska music that consists of the running man motion while alternating bent-elbow fist-punches left and right.
Though the musicians are impassioned and the fans loyal, ska still remains a largely unknown genre of music in Calgary.
“When I tell (people) I’m in a band and they ask what kind and I say ‘ska band,’ I would like more recognition, so the answer isn’t always ‘what?’” said Tracey Wells, drummer for local ska bands Class Action and Hats and Black Ties.
Photo by Lindsay Douglas“What’s ska?” added Alex Free, bassist for the seven-piece ska band, Class Action, jokingly mimicking the question he often hears.
Ska music dates back to 1950s Jamaica where quick, upbeat music was made. Prince Buster, who is considered to be one of the most important figures in ska music, began making music at this time.
In Encyclopedia Britannica, a ska band is defined as traditionally consisting of bass, drums, guitar, keyboards and horns and the genre was the precursor to rocksteady and reggae music.
Ska became popular again in the 1970s, particularly in England, in what is known as the 2-Tone period, and in the 1990s during the third wave ska movement, where ska bands infused with punk, like The Planet Smashers and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, found mainstream success.
Although ska music has fallen out of mainstream music in Canada, earnest musicians and fans keep the scene alive.
Free and Wells said that both Class Action and Hats and Black Ties have remained a stable presence in the Calgary ska scene since 2006 and 2007 respectively.
Wells said many Calgary ska bands, including Hats and Black Ties, have been formed when a “bunch of band nerds” got together and started playing their instruments with ska music. For horn musicians in particular, ska music is a natural fit for their instruments.
The Palomino Smokehouse often hosts ska shows, and Spencer Brown, booking agent for this Calgary bar, said that the ska scene manages to maintain itself at around three to five bands.
“There are always the same core amount of bands doing shows around town,” Brown said. “It hasn’t really shrunk dramatically but it hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds either.”
A love for creating and sharing this upbeat music is what compels Calgary’s ska bands to persevere. Fame and fortune are low on Free’s list of aspirations.
“We didn’t sit down and say ‘okay we’re going to start a ska band in Calgary and we’re going to get on the radio and tour across the world and be a big successful band,’” Free said.
“We’re playing this music because we like to play it. That’s the reason the band exists. If we were totally caught up in trying to be successful and making money we would have broken up years ago, because that’s just what the reality is.”
A tight-knit community
Being part of a small scene means being part of a close community.
“I feel like there’s a really strong metal-y rock scene in Calgary and then there’s the ‘other,’ ” Wells said. “You get a lot of the ‘obscure’ bands that are not part of the metal scene and we stick together.”
Brown said that ska bands are not limited by the size of their scene due to their musicality, which allows their sound to mesh with many other genres.
Photo by Lindsay Douglas“You can fit them with a soul band, a funk band, even some jazzier type stuff and of course you can always fit them with punk rock,” Brown said. “They have a little bit more versatility than only being able to play within their genre.”
Besides Class Action and Hats and Black ties, J.k & The Relays and Recession Royalty also fit under the title of Calgary ska bands.
“Everybody knows each other fairly well and you have a lot of shows together,” Wells said.
As for the future of the ska scene in Calgary, Wells hopes to see new bands enter the scene and new fans grow to appreciate the music she loves.
“I want to be playing for as long as I can and expose as many new people as I can to the genre because I really like it,” Wells said.
Class Action will celebrate its 100th show by playing at The D on Dec. 27, 2013, with the Special Edisons opening. You can find more information by visiting classactionska.ca