Friday, May 14, 2010

Ska: An Oral History: New Book To Tell The Personal Stories Of The Musicians Who Invented It

As ska has moved farther and farther from its original birthplace in Jamaica to become a world wide phenomena with multiple sub-genres (e.g., 2-Tone, Ska-Punk, Ska-Core), the stories of the musicians and producers who invented the sound we all love have have slowly begun to fade as they themselves have passed away. While their spirits will always live on in the songs and music they wrote and recorded, their individual stories provide a window into one of the most interesting, fertile, dynamic and competitive music scenes ever invented. As a serious student of ska music history, I'm a firm believer that in order to know where you are going you need to know where you've been. So does Heather Augustyn, who is about to publish one of the first oral histories of ska music later this year.

In a project that has spanned nearly a decade, Augustyn is about to realize a long held dream that has become a personal mission: to ensure that the stories of 30 key ska musicians who have played a key role in its invention, development and ongoing success are captured and preserved. I recently connected with Augustyn who shared some of her own amazing stories that came out of the recording of the personal stories of a who's a who of ska musicians.

How did you get introduced to ska music? What are your earliest memories related to ska music?
I first heard ska when I was a kid and watched The Young Ones on MTV. I remember seeing Madness perform 'House of Fun' with Neil, Vivian, and the boys. I thought it was kind of silly music but really fun. Then of course I saw 120 Minutes and was a huge fan of The English Beat and General Public because I thought Roger and Dave were just the coolest combination ever. Then came Fishbone and the Toasters and I realized that this music had a rich history. I had no idea. My father raised us on great classic music, like real rock ‘n’ roll, and he is a huge Bob Marley fan and a huge reggae fan, but I never knew there was a connection with this music I was raised with, and the music I had discovered later in my youth. When I put the two of them together and realized they had the same roots, it was like an explosion for me and I had to know more.

Do you remember the first ska music you ever heard? What was the first ska album your ever bought? First show you ever saw?
The first ska I ever heard was Madness. But I think the first ska album I ever bought was I Just Can’t Stop It by The English Beat. The first show I ever saw was The Toasters. Even though I grew up an hour away from Chicago, I am from a small town in Indiana and led a pretty sheltered life growing up, so I didn’t get out to too many crazy ska shows until later in my youth!

What inspired you to decide to write a book that tells the history of ska music? What made you decide to make it an oral history told by the musicians themselves?
Well I decided to write a book on ska history when I got out of grad school in 1996 and realized there was nothing out there on it. I went to the library to read more and there was nothing there. Sure, there were tons of books on Bob Marley and reggae, and maybe a few of them would have a half a chapter on ska or rocksteady, but then that was it. I was dumbfounded. To me it was just wrong. This was back in 1996 when the Internet was just starting to boom, so I found some stuff online, through FAQs and stuff like that, but there was just as much misinformation out there in that arena as there was information. So I felt it was my duty. Then I realized, who the hell am I? I’m just a little white girl from Indiana! Who would ever listen to me?! But if I could get the story from those who were there, the artists themselves, then that would be the real story. I don’t think I really thought it would be an oral history until I had interviewed a bunch of these folks and found that their stories were so rich that they would be the focus of the book. I did a whole bunch of interviews and the project got to be so big that it was too daunting for me. I put the tapes in a box and they just sat, that unfinished project, as life happened. I had kids, I moved a bunch of times, and I became a journalist and honed my skills. Some of the artists I had interview begun to die, one by one. I realized that I could not let those words go unheard. It again was my duty to pick the project back up and finish it. So in 2007, on my 35th birthday, I decided to go full force. I re-interviewed many people, I interviewed new people, and I wrote every single day for a year and a half until it was done. These musicians never gave up ska music and I couldn’t give up on them.

Did you have the book deal before you started this project? How did you sell this to your publisher?
No. But I promised myself I would not self publish. There’s nothing wrong with self publishing and I’ve done that with two books before. But I felt this was too important for that. I owed it to these artists to do it right. So I found a literary agent in New York City. He helped me tremendously. He helped me to write a fantastic book proposal, which is like writing a book by itself. It’s like 50 pages long and analyzes everything from other books on the market like it, to potential audiences, numbers, etc. I spend a long time writing that and hired a friend to design it and I tell you, that proposal kicked ass. I had all of the big literary houses telling me they loved it, they loved me as a writer, but the book wouldn’t sell more than 1,000 copies. I couldn’t argue with that. I mean, it’s not a book about vampires and werewolves falling in love. It’s ska. There is a hardcore fan base for ska, but to a Houghton Mifflin or a St. Martin’s Press, they just don’t do niche markets. So after I was with my agent for a year and a half, I decided he had exhausted to top tier of big guns, and it was time for a little DIY action. I fired him. Within two weeks, I had my publisher, on my own. I found McFarland, an academic press in North Carolina. I found my editor, Charlie Perdue, who got it. He just got it. He said he had been looking for a book like this for the six years he had been with the publisher. He had his own reggae show in college and numbers weren’t as important to them as was a quality product about a great topic. It was the perfect fit.

How did you go about setting up interviews with all the original Jamaican ska musicians like The Skatalites’ Doreen Schaeffer, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Knibb, and Lester Sterling; Derrick Morgan and Patsy (Millicent Todd); Lyn Taitt; Laurel Aitken; Toots Hibbert; Millie Small?
Back in 1996, I saw that The Skatalites were coming to the University of Chicago for a show. I had seen them before, and since, but knew that this venue may provide some more intimate time for an interview. So I contacted their manager at the time, whose name was Shay, and contacted the university student group putting together the concert and got them to agree to let me do the interview back stage before the show. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, one I will never forget, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Roland Alphonso is perhaps the sweetest man in the world! My husband knows I have a fondness for old men (nothing creepy, I just think they are cute!), but let me tell you, Roland was the best of them! He was warm, and his spirit just radiated. They all were great. Lloyd Knibb was a true professional, telling me the details of his drumming style; Lloyd Brevett had a quite, soft whisper of a voice and he slipped from time to time into a little patois to keep me just on the edge of his world, letting me in when he wanted to; Lester was ready to get to the show but was friendly and helpful; and Doreen was a sweetheart. I interviewed her again 12 years later by phone. Such a generous soul. All of the others I interviewed over the phone, although I did see them at the shows to photograph them with permission, like Laurel Aitken. Lyn Taitt I interviewed about two months before he died via phone. He really didn’t want to talk but gave me just a few words. Millie Small was an interview I conducted via interview with her manager, after being told no a bunch of times and refusing to give up. Patsy called me one day after I gave my phone number to her through a friend, Brad Klein and is the sweetest lady in the world. She had a whole different perspective and hadn’t talked to anyone about ska in like 35 years, except for Brad, with whom she did the Legends of Ska show that he is turning into a documentary. Derrick Morgan was so generous, talked forever on the phone, and his son, Courtney, even sent me materials to use afterwards, like photos and additional interviews, although I used only my own interviews in the book. Toots is a funny story. I had tried to arrange a time to interview him via phone, but then one day my phone rings. It’s a Sunday morning, 8 a.m. and there is this thick Jamaican voice on the other end saying it’s him! I about died. I went flying for my tape recorder set up (all of these I recorded with a little jack thingy I bought from Radio Shack for 15 bucks) and had him holding the line, in Jamaica, while I got my butt out of bed and ready to interview! That was nuts! We talked and talked.

How were you received when you explained you were writing a book? Did you travel to Jamaica to conduct the interviews?
I have never been to Jamaica. I hope to go there someday, but the places I would want to see are likely long gone or turned into tourist venues, so it’s really not the same. When I told musicians I was writing a book, everyone, everyone was helpful and friendly and talked and talked and after they talked they gave me another number or two for another person, and it snowballed like that. It was like a family. There was only one exception. I had conducted an interview with Prince Buster. I told him what I was doing and everything. But then years later, when I actually had the publisher, he demanded money from me. He wanted 90% of my profits!! Crazy. I told him I expected to make little if any money off of this academic work and he said for that reason alone he couldn’t give me permission to use the interview. So I, of course, couldn’t use it. I never paid any of the other artists and they knew that. This was a labor of love. I never pay anyone for interviews. I have interviewed many people in my days. I was the last to interview the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut before his death; I have interviewed heads of state in Asia; I have interviewed former directors of the CIA; I have interviewed Eric Schlosser who wrote Fast Food Nation; and I have interviewed the original promoter of the Beatles, and other musicians for The Village Voice, to name a few. None have ever asked for money, ever. I couldn’t. It would ruin my integrity as a journalist to pay for an interview. If money were involved that would taint the story, taint the truth. I figure it’s an interesting story of greedy Jamaican producers being alive and well today!! I still love Prince Buster, love his work, love his contributions, just don’t love his greed, but boy that’s part of the whole picture too, so I guess I have to accept that part too!

Can you share any unusual stories or anecdotes about the early days of ska that you learned from the interviews you conducted?
Well you’ll just have to read the book! Cedella Marley shares some of her father in the foreword. Lester Sterling shares some about Rita Marley in the studio while they practiced. Derrick Morgan shares one about writing a song for a rude boy who ended up murdered two days later. Lloyd Brevett shares one about Don Drummond murdering his girlfriend Margarita and how he thinks Drummond actually died in the mental institution. Patsy shares one about why she and Derrick really split up their music partnership, one Morgan never knew until 35 years later. I could go on and on! Really, everything that comes out of these guys’ mouths is fascinating!

You also interviewed a number of 2-Tone era musicians like Dave Wakeling, Ranking Roger, Roddy Byers, Pauline Black and Buster Bloodvessel. What is their take on the ongoing popularity and longevity of ska?
They looked at it as a whole new thing. They were inventors and creators in their own right. They were kids. They were just combining everything they loved. And it was all so fast, it was like a powder keg, it just ignited. They were celebrities instantly, and it ended just as fast as it started, because in England, music fans are fickle, and the next best thing came along, the New Romantics, and in America it never took off right then. What amazes me is that they all never gave up. They continued to perform. After all, they are all musicians. That’s what they do. Sure, some of them ended up in mental institutions or tried to off themselves, but the lot of them continued on and when fashion came around again they were ready to go, older and wiser. I think the common elements here with all of them, the common threads through their stories, is that they honestly love the music and they honestly love their fans. They really do.

Can you share any unusual stories or anecdotes that you learned about the 2-Tone era from the interviews you conducted?
Hmmm, well I think Dave Wakeling’s insights on music videos in America are pretty interesting. He talks about what MTV allowed in the U.S. versus England and how they even put drops in his eyes to make them bluer so he’d be more attractive to TV audiences! He has such a fun look on it now too—he never takes himself too seriously and is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. I think that comes across in his interview too. One thing that is interesting that is not in the book is that Jerry Dammers sent me a letter that everything Roddy says in the book he has issue with. Dammers wouldn’t let me have license to use any of the song lyrics he wrote because he said the things Roddy said weren’t true. It was like a four page letter going line by line on the things Roddy and I had said in the chapter. I wished him luck and went ahead without changing a word. Roddy is so honest, brutally honest, and it’s no secret the two don’t get along. Hell, no one gets along with Dammers. But again, ultimate respect. Artists can be temperamental, can’t they?!

You also interviewed a who's who of American ska musicians who were influenced by the first and second waves of ska. Do you think there is a uniquely American style of ska?
Absolutely, and I think I try to make that argument in the book pretty clearly. America is a melting pot, and so is American ska. Ska came here at different times and blended with different forms of music. So I interview Angelo Moore of Fishbone who talks about his influences and flavor, and Tony Kanal of No Doubt who talks about his influences and flavor, and the same for Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bucket from the Toasters (who tells the true story about why Moon Ska Records folded), and dozens of others. It’s all a big melting pot. It’s ska and soul, it’s ska and hardcore, it’s ska and pop, it’s ska and everything under the sun.

Many have wrongly predicted the death of ska many times. Why do you think it continues to survive and thrive?
It’s the fans. People who love ska love it to death. That’s it. Once you’re hooked, that’s it. A friend of mine, Dave Simon from Deal’s Gone Bad, has a saying that “if you used to be punk, you never were,” and I guess I feel the same for ska in a way, that those who really love ska always love ska, forever. It’s just that kind of music that never grows old. Sure you might get sick of a sing-song Night Boat to Cairo every now and then, but put that tune back on in a year and it’s just as good as it was the first time. It’s happy music that never dies. And as the new generations come along, so goes ska. My two sons love it. My five year old son hums Guns of Navarone all day long. I’m not the only parent I hear say this. It’s the kind of music someone age 7 or 70 can enjoy, together. So the next generation is just getting ready for the next incarnation. I don’t think it ever dies. I never use the terms “first wave,” “second wave,” or “third wave” in my book, ever. I think I quoted one person who did, but I don’t. I don’t see it that way. There are just a variety of incarnations of it, but just because popularity ebbs and flows doesn’t affect the music in any way other than to breathe new versions into it, which is true of any art.

When will the book be out and where will people be able to buy it?
The book will be out this fall. I’ll let you know when I have a more definite date. We just finalized photos, most of which I took at shows. They are copy editing now. We just settled on a title, after many ideas. The original title was The Voice of the People: An Oral History of Ska Music in Jamaica and England, which is a beast of a title, too long, and then that Prince Buster thing. Then came An Oral History of Ska Music, but that was clunky. Then was Foundation Ska: An Oral History, but that was determined to be confusing. Then the final is Ska: An Oral History, so that librarians and school folk will know right up front, when they see it in a catalogue, what it is about. Short and sweet. You can buy it through McFarland or on, either as a physical book or an e-book for you techno-nerds out there.

You can pre-order a copy of the book from the McFarland Web site. There is also a Facebook page for the book.


Steve from Moon said...

Can't wait to read the book!

Kames Jelly said...

I can't wait to read it either. It's going to be good to have something to read on the subject written by an actual fan who cares.

Anonymous said...

Will it be available in the UK?


Marco On The Bass said...

HI Nehama! I hope you are well! I don't think there will be a UK version though I imagine you can order it from McFarland here in the US.

Joe Scholes said...

Thanks a lot for the info. Looking forward to reading the book.