Rudie Onna Cumberland: A Short History of Ska

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They were a skinny tie, black suit, sunglasses and porkpie hat-wearing cool breeze blowing along puke-shirted, mohawked, safety pin-through-the-eyebrowed Cumberland Avenue.

It was the early '80s when that pioneering Nashville ska band called Freedom of Expression incongruously turned up onstage at those glorious rock 'n' roll sweatboxesâ"the Library and Vic 'n' Bill's.

Now called AKA Rudie, the band can't quite escape a certain â“Cumberlandâ” heritageâ"they regularly play a downtown Nashville venue called Windows on the Cumberland. Still fronted by Rob Hoskins, dancing a jig across the stage between his keyboard and trombone stations, the band skanks like there's no tomorrow even if they do look more like Presbyterian deacons on holiday than the rude boys of old.

AKA Rudie will return to Knoxville for Ska Weekend 2007 on Saturday afternoon when they play Barley's Taproom.  

â“It was hard at first in those days to get people to take ska seriously,â” Hoskins reports by telephone during Sunday rehearsal in Nashville. â“We got booked because we were a novelty. That includes getting booked outside the South simply because not only were we a ska band, we were a â‘ska band from Tennessee.â”

Punk was in its ascendancy and, stylistically in both music and attire; Freedom of Expression was distinctly something else. The band did a lot of songs by British ska punkers, the Specials, which were in turn reworkings of ska and reggae songs from Jamaica (for example, Toots and the Maytals' classic, â“Monkey Manâ”). Hoskins remembered it was an odd juxtapositionâ"the dapper ska band cranking out bouncy island-flavored tunes at a time when ragged punk dominatedâ"â“but we eventually felt accepted into the scene as we played around the UT area.â”

An AKA Rudie set might include original material like their spy movie dub, "Cool and Deadly;" a homage to a great Jamaican horn band of the '60s like the Skatalites; a ska retooling of the Rolling Stones' "Get Off of My Cloud;" and a jazzy brass instrumental segueing into a hopped-up version of â“Oliver's Armyâ” so good it rivals Elvis Costello's own.


Ska is essentially American R&B music as transliterated for Caribbean sensibilities. Jamaicans were enthralled by the American music they heard from Southern radio stationsâ"especially New Orleansâ"broadcasting clear-channel signals back in the '50s and '60s. Bands like those of Fats Domino and Bobby â“Blueâ” Bland inspired the islanders to amp up their native mento and calypso with pumping horn sections. They replaced steel drums with drum kits and peppered the lyrics with sexual innuendo and political narratives. They inverted the beat.

It was an affirmative, celebratory music, all the more so as the island nation gained its independence from Great Britain. In a strange parallel, a decade or more later, the disaffected white youths of British midlands citiesâ"especially Coventryâ"decided to reinterpret the infectious â“bluebeat,â” â“rocksteadyâ” and other ska-offshoots brought to Britain by West Indian immigrants. Some of them, channeling the angst felt by the punk generation during the Thatcher-Reagan era, put their own harsh edge to the otherwise beat-happy music.

The horns and driving rhythm section were still there. The distinctive â“sk-sk-skâ” rhythm guitar was still there (the onomatopoeic origin of the word â“skaâ”). The vocalists bleated out the same combination of simple longings cross-stitched with social complaint as the punkers. But what really set it apart from the nice boys in matching suits who played dances back in Jamaica was the shredding electric guitar that came to the party like a big, loud, stupidâ"albeit lovableâ"drunk.

No matter how far removed it becomes from its Jamaican roots, ska    inspires furious passion among its devotees.

â“Ska music's evolution is ever changing,â” said Ben Altom, Ska Weekend's creator and producer. Altom credits English expatriate Michael Devonport with helping him understand that ska went much further back than the so-called â“thirdâ” and â“fourthâ” -wave bands that typified American ska when Altom was in high school. Devonport, now of Melbourne, Fla., was so enthusiastic in supporting the young high schooler's interest in ska that he loaned the teenage promoter the use of his since-closed Powell restaurant as a venue for the first, very modest Ska Weekend in 2003.


The British ska that emerged from the late '70s to early '80s sometimes is referred to as the â“Two Toneâ” sound. Typifying the era were The Specials, Madness, The Selecter and English Beat. Many of these bands were signed to the Two Tone label. Supposedly, the term was coined to reflect the music's biracial heritage. Black and white also were the preferred colors of the era's uniform: black suits with white shirts and black ties, preferably with a porkpie hat and shades.

Ironically, a subculture of racist ska followers developed around this time, an anomaly that persists to this day even though the music is overwhelmingly associated with anti-racism. One of the iconic incidents to come from this conflict was when racist hooligans slashed Jamaican-born Lynval Golding's throat. The Specials' guitarist commemorated the near-tragedy in the song, â“Why?â”

Golding will be at Ska Weekend with his current band, Steadfast United. The Philadelphia-based five-piece outfit's brand of ska is old-schoolish, leaning toward the more romantic â“rocksteadyâ” and â“lover's rockâ” styles. Co-leader Michael Ambrose said he was just a toddler in the 'burbs of New Jersey during the heyday of the Specials. Yet, a chance gig with the U.S. touring version of David Wakeling's English Beat put him in the van with Golding. â“We had a weekend off from English Beat's tour and he and I decided to record an EP together. A few months later we decided to make it a band and here we are!â”

The linkage between ska and punk traces back to the Two Tone days in Britain. How and why buzzsaw guitar insinuated itself into quintessentially danceable horns and rhythm section-driven music is a subject that provides no certain answers. Some musicians who are coming to Ska Weekend were asked to expound on the topic. If there was a consensus, it was not so much that punk and ska had common ground in their emotionalism as it was a case of minorities forming alliances.

â“My thought is, you had guitar players and singers that listened to punk, and you had their buddies who played horns that liked ska,â” says Altom. â“They wanted to play in a band together and had both influences coming together. Lord knows, that is how I started playing ska: I played trumpet and Zac (Johnson, co-founder of their old band, Perfect Orange) played guitar. It was the only logical solution.â”

Steve Jackson, singer for the highly regarded Pietasters, grew up in Washington, D.C. where â“the kids listened to all types of music. Hardcore punk was the big scene in D.C. but bands like the Toasters, New York Citizens, and the Skatalites would pass through and the club would be full of punks, skins and mods. I always thought that was the connection. Kind of a sub-genre supporting a sub-genre. A strength-in-numbers sort of thing.â”

Mustard Plug's singer, David Kirchgessner, agrees that the similar energies had something to do with the two styles marrying. â“They both have long histories dating back to the '60s and unique subcultures, right down to styles of dress. Also, to borrow from Bob Marley, who started out playing ska, both are â‘rebel music' cultures opposing the status quo and societal oppression. The first ska-punk band was the Specials. They did it so well, they've been inspiring musicians for almost 30 years.â”

A little should be said about the odd little dance ska seems to trigger. Sometimes called â“the crazy dance,â” â“the mad dance,â” and â“skanking,â” ska dancing at best sometimes looks a lot like running in place. According to the Urban Dictionary , â“unskilled skankers are sometimes mistaken for seizure victims.â”

Some sources indicate that there is lineage between the ska dance and British music hall hoofing of the '30s. This would include such vaudevillian bits as â“sand dancingâ” and the Lambeth Walk, a kind of Cockney strut that sometimes included the â“oi!â” shout associated at one time with some of the more violent strains of ska-punk. A certain goofiness that goes along with the British-influenced ska dancing might also suggest that its development owes something to Monty Python's â“Ministry of Silly Walks.â”

For good examples of some truly loony ska dancing, go to YouTube and summon up some music videos by Madness (â“One Step Beyond,â” â“Night Boat to Cairoâ”), the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (â“The Impression that I Getâ”) and The Specials (â“Message to You, Rudy.â”)

Or just go watch the crowd when AKA Rudie and some of the other 30 bands play the Old City on Ska Weekend.  


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