Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
by Tina Maples
Angie Payne learned to skank at the Holiday Folk Fair. "I was walking around last year and I ran into these guys who looked like skankers." said Payne, 18, a senior at Arrowhead High School in Hartland. "I pulled them aside and said, 'Show me how.'" Now, before you start questioning the kind of customs they're teaching kids at our ethnic celebrations, you should know that skanking- a style of dancing that involves swinging your arms and shifting your weight from foot to foot- is neither illegal, immoral or dangerous. It is, however, contagious. And so is the music that spawned it: ska. As fun and spritely as its name, ska os a syncopated, horn-fueled precursor to reggae that got its start in Jamaica in the 1950s and '60s. Like a sponge, it has absorbed influences from rock, jazz, R&B and punk in three distinct "waves" of popularity since then. Now, some say, a fourth wave is about to break, as young bands such as Voodoo Glow Skulls (on the hot California punk label, Epitaph) and the Green Day clones Goldfinger put even more of a punk spin on the traditional ska sound. Exposure-wise, ska got a big boost last summer when Boston's Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a metal-edged "ska-core" band, played Lollapalooza. Sine then, ska has made inroads on radio, in songs such as "Time Bomb" by Rancid, Sublime's (blessedly) short- lived "Date Rape" and the music of female-led groups such as Dance Hall Crashers and No Doubt. Traditionalists lambaste some of the new groups for dumping their horn sections. But that doesn't bother fans, who've recently started coming in droves to the monthly all ages ska shows at the Globe, an East side nightclub. "I remember coming to ska shows here last fall and having enough room to skank. Now you can hardly move," said Adrianna Bast, 16, an Arrowhead student. Like Payne, she was part of a capacity crowd at a recent Globe show by the Skatalites, a first-wave '60s Jamaican band that, like other veteran groups, is being rediscovered by the MTV generation. Chuck Wren, 26, is a deejay who has been doing his Sunday night "Ska Show" for seven years on Northwestern University's WNUR-FM (89.3) in Chicago. He said ska is hot partly because "people want a diversion from all the noisy stuff on the radio." "They're looking for something new, something that's happy and jumpy," Wren said. "Ska is both poppy and guitar-y. And it can be reproduced live in a way that's very exciting." Although attendence at national ska shows here is up, and local high school bands such as the Skandals are drawing attention, some say Milwaukee's ska scene actually was hotter a few years ago, when late-'80s bands such as International Jet Set and the Elavators gave way to groups like the Pacers. Most visionary of all was Wild Kingdom, whose fire-eating front man, Paul Finger, blazed through the clubs wearing a Fez, granny glasses and a maniacal grin. Currently, one of the best-known local ska bands is the Invaders. The seven-piece group has doubled its crowds since switching from party cover songs to what it calls "Brewtown ska" a few years ago. "We've played all-ages shows at halls, and the dance floor will be filled with everyone from 6-year olds to the parents who brought them," said Invaders singer Kevin "Max" Wisniewski, 35, a greenfield firefighter by day. Wisniewski laughed. "I want to say to those parents, 'Hey, go away, or your kids won't think this music is cool anymore.'" Ska's evolution is defined by three "waves," the first which ended in the scalding Jamaican summer of 1966. Legend has it that because it was too hot to dance, musicians slowed the jittery rhythms of ska to what i sknown as rocksteady- the more up- tempo version of which became modern reggae. The second wave broke in England in the late '70s, borrowing from the Mods to create the stylish "rude-boy" look and spawning a mini-movement of interracial "two-tone" bands that include the English Beat, Madness, Selector and the Specials. The Specials, who defined the second wave with their 2-Tone record label, perform June 21 at the Rave in support of their new album, "Today's Specials," in stores today. Through constant touring, the Toasters, a New York band, kept ska alive in the '80s and paved the way for the current crop of thrid-wavers. They also founded the country's premier ska label, Moon Ska NYC, home to such hot contemporary outfits as Hepcat, Let's Go Bowling, MU330, the Pietasters, the Scofflaws and Mephiskapheles. Today, many ska bands are interracial. And according to Wren, there's an increasing Asian influence with groups such as Reel Big Fish and janitors Against Apartheid. Yet ska crowds in Milwaukee- and, Wren said, at the packed monthly ska shows at Chicago's Metro nightclub- tend to be mostly white. It's a puzzling trend, since one of the primary messages of ska is racial unity, symbolized by the black and white checker-board logos of the two-tone bands. Local ska watchers blame the divide on a combination of segregated radio formats and the increasing punk influence on the music, as well as the fact that ska came to the U.S. through the U.K. rather than straight rom Jamaica. "I think it's also an indication of the cultural segregation that permeates this city," said Shahanna McKinney, 25, who's often one of the only African-Americans at shows by her recently reunited six-piece local band, Highball Holiday. "But anything I can do as a third-wave band to raise awareness and appreciation of ska is an honor." In spite of the resurgence of interest, are ska- ficionados don't see the music breaking out on the scale of recent trends such as grunge or punk- which Wren said wasn't really a "trend" at all. "Did punk really break big in the '90s? No," he said. "A few bands broke, like Green Day, the Offspring and Rancid. But I don't see this huge rush of kids going to see underground punk shows at VFW halls. I think ska will be the same way, with maybe a dozen bands breaking big." Eric Beaumont, leader of the local ska band Eric Blowtorch and the Revelator Rhythm Section, agreed. "I don't think it will elevate beyond good-time party music," he said. "There was a real wild sense of abandonment in the original music. The groups looked smart and cool and played in a serious hot style." Nowadays, he said the approach of popular ska groups such as Michigan's Mustard Plug and San Francisco's Skankin' Pickle is "comical and tinny and cheesy. I think people are afraid to sing about politics anymore." But even ska purists like Beaumont have to admit that if skanking replaces moshing in just a few circles, the energy is well spent. "Even if the music is goofy and superficial, going to a ska show is still better than sitting at home and being plugged into a radio or tv or computer," he said. "It's a pretty joyous sound."