The following article is from our January 2009 issue.

Play It Upside Down Ska has been filling dancehalls for decades - especially in Germany - By Thomas Winkler

No one knows who first played ska. But one thing is certain: Whether by inspiration or mistake, somewhere in Jamaica in the late 1950s, a simple beat shift from rhythm & blues gave birth to a new music style.

Today more than 50 years later, Jamaica's music exports - reggae, rock steady, dub and dancehall - fill the charts and dance floors around the world. And the mother of them all, ska? All but extinct at home, it is alive and kicking everywhere else, especially in Germany.

A new ska band seems to form every day, old heroes play to packed houses on comeback tours and a new audience is buying tickets. Right now there are more than 30 bands playing ska or ska-influenced music in Berlin alone. "That is more than there were in all of Germany in 1989," said Matthias Bröckel, who started Pork Pie Records that year.

Bröckel's company is Germany's premier ska label and the most commercially successful one as well. But that doesn't mean much in a niche market like ska: Sales figures have always been marginal and they continue to fall, just like in the rest of the music industry.

Ska has always been mainly about live performance anyway. Its hopping rhythm is contagious - ska bands guarantee a good time. They are also favorites at festivals because even the whole spectrum of youth subculture can agree on ska as their party music. And because a band's stage success is becoming increasingly more important in these days of plummeting record and CD sales, ska is booming.

The situation looked different a few years ago. After the late-1970s heyday of the two-tone movement with bands like Madness and The Specials in the UK and the "third wave" that followed when ska became widespread in the rest of Europe in the 1980s, the snappy off beat became mired in the underground.

Innovation and change were viewed with distrust. When El Bosso & Die Ping-Pongs began to write German texts for their ska songs, the scene began debating whether or not it was permissible. They broke up for a while but the Münster band is one of the most popular German acts these days. And, for the record, ska works in German.

Tradition-conscious ska fans have since confronted other innovations. The new generation of bands experiment zealously with the music that was once trapped in its own clichés and now a wide range of fusions seem to be viable. SkaZka, six Berliners with Russian roots, merges ska with the folklore of their homeland and Dosenbier, the dance band from Paderborn, combines ska with comedy.

Weisswurscht Is from Eichstätt in Bavaria could have discovered ska on the Hungarian plains - but that doesn't stop them from garnishing the beat with lyrics in the Lower Bavarian dialect. Ringo Ska from Hemsbach in Baden-Würtemberg only does ska versions of Beatles hits. Ratatöska from Berlin sings to the off beat in extremely broad local idiom. And Blossom from Leipzig plays musically traditional ska but with a Christian message.

Other German bands cross ska with funk, jazz, klezmer or hiphop. Anything goes − there are no limits to the way the genre is being redefined and the new generation of young fans is just as undogmatic as the bands are. "That is a blessing," said Richard Alexander Jung aka Dr. Ring Ding, who has been a legendary figure on the German ska scene since the early 1990s.

Ska is ready and waiting to distract you from the current global financial catastrophe. After all, the music has traditionally been most successful during crisis periods. When it started in Jamaica, ska was the music of the "rude boys": unemployed, black Jamaican youths who were members of street gangs.

Madness and The Specials enjoyed their biggest success early in the 1980s while British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was fighting mass unemployment with controversial means. The third wave from the middle to the end of the 1980s especially inspired Germany, giving rise to many bands such as Blechreiz or No Sports. They were the soundtrack to the economic downturn in the former West Germany that reunification finally broke.

The best prerequisites for a widespread ska revival seem in place right now. But even the protagonists of the revival, whether the traditionalist or innovator variety, don't believe that their favorite music is going to storm the charts tomorrow. Yet a few years ago, who would have thought that German soul or reggae would top the charts?


Picture above: Berlin's Blechreiz live on stage.