Essential Traditional Ska Music CDs

Starter CDs from the Legends of First Wave Ska

Ska Band
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Traditional Jamaican ska music came about in the early 1960s. It was originally a blend of traditional Caribbean sounds (including mento and calypso) and American R&B and soul. It was fast music, made for dancing, and inextricably intertwined with the "Rude Boy" culture of the time period, which stressed an old-school gangster-like aesthetic for impoverished Jamaican youths. Record labels in those days generally only released single or double tracks (as opposed to full-length LPs), which were played by mobile DJs at their sound systems, so these CDs are all modern compilations of those original tracks.

The Skatalites - 'Foundation Ska'

The Skatalites - Foundation Ska
The Skatalites - 'Foundation Ska'. (c) Heartbeat Records, 1996

The Skatalites are a band from Kingston, Jamaica, whose formation was facilitated by seminal producer Coxsone Dodd. They were notable for their large horn section, which became a standard for ska music, and in addition to recording their own tracks, frequently backed up other artists, such as Desmond Dekker and the Wailers. They broke up after one of their founding members, Don Drummond, was sent to jail for murder, but they re-formed in the 1980s and continue to tour, though few of the original members are still alive or touring. This double CD is a great introduction to their original sound, which was, and continues to be, hugely influential.

Prince Buster - 'Fabulous Greatest Hits'

Prince Buster - 'Fabulous Greatest Hits'
Prince Buster - 'Fabulous Greatest Hits'. (c) Diamond Range Records, 1998

Prince Buster was one of the first artists to incorporate Rastafarian elements into his music, African-Rastafarian nyabinghi drumming in particular, thus contributing heavily to the developing sound of ska music as a genre, as well as marking the beginning of a long tradition of Rastafarian influences, both musical and spiritual, on Jamaican popular music. Interestingly, Prince Buster himself actually converted to Islam in 1964. Prince Buster recorded for Blue Beat Records, before eventually starting his own eponymous label. He is still alive and occasionally performs in London, where he now lives.

The Wailers - 'Simmer Down at Studio One'

The Wailers - Simmer Down at Studio One
The Wailers - 'Simmer Down at Studio One'. (c) Heartbeat Records, 1994

Before he was the man who became reggae's most famous name, Bob Marley was a clean-shaven young lad in the Wailers, a group known for their soulful vocal harmonies and sweet love songs. The other two vocalists in the Wailers, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer, were no slouches either, and as a group, they'd go on to effectively change the face of music as we know it. Their early work is fun and raucous, and no ska or reggae fan should be without a bit of it.

Desmond Dekker - 'Rudy Got Soul'

Desmond Dekker - 'Rudy Got Soul'
Desmond Dekker - 'Rudy Got Soul'. (c) Sanctuary Records, 2003

In the early days of ska, Desmond Dekker was Jamaica's biggest star. He was also one of the first Jamaican musicians to have an international hit, with 1968's "The Israelites." Dekker recorded with Leslie Kong's Beverley's record labe, and went on to record songs in the rocksteady and reggae genres, recording a legendary body of work that influenced just about every Jamaican artist who followed in his footsteps. The title of this album references the Rude Boy culture.

Lord Creator - 'Don't Stay Out Late: Greatest Hits'

Lord Creator - 'Don't Stay Out Late: Greatest Hits'
Lord Creator - 'Don't Stay Out Late: Greatest Hits'. (c) VP Records, 1997

Lord Creator was born in Trinidad and Tobago and initially became popular as a calypso singer. He moved to Jamaica in the late 1950s, and his personal style of calypso was one of the building blocks of ska in the early 1960s. He was the first artist signed to Island Records and continued to record both calypso and ska until the mid-1970s, when he essentially disappeared, ending up homeless. When UB40 recorded a cover of his song "Kingston Town," he earned substantial royalties and was able to pull his life together and even begin touring again.

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires - 'Jamaican Ska and Other Party Anthems'

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires - Jamaica Ska and other Jamaica Party Anthems
Byron Lee and the Dragonaires - 'Jamaica Ska and other Jamaica Party Anthems'. (c) Sanctuary Records, 2004

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires were professional musicians well before ska existed: they were a popular hotel band who played mento and American R&B covers for tourists and locals. They didn't begin playing ska until it had already emerged as a genre, and they began to play it simply because of its popularity. Turns out, though, these seasoned experts had no trouble pulling it off, and their take on ska turned out to be some of the finest and most popular music that was recorded in the time period. They continued to evolve with the times for decades, recording ska, rocksteady, and other genres from around the Caribbean, ultimately becoming hugely influential soca artists. The band recorded right up until Byron Lee's death in late 2008.

The Maytals - 'The Sensational Maytals'

Toots and the Maytals - 'The Sensational Maytals'
Toots and the Maytals - 'The Sensational Maytals'. (c) VP Records, 2008

The Maytals (later known as Toots & the Maytals) were one of the strongest vocal groups to come out of the ska movement, rivaling only The Wailers. Lead singer Toots Hibbert draws easy comparisons to Otis Redding, both vocally and with their shared ability to really pull the heart out of a song. In their early years, The Maytals were in high demand both as frontmen and as backup singers, and they sometimes performed under other names as backing vocalists, including "The Cherrypies" on a recording with Desmond Dekker. The Maytals are interestingly credited with being the first band to use the word "reggae" in a song, with their 1968 song "Do the Reggay" [sic], and were influential in the transitions from ska to rocksteady to reggae.

Laurel Aitken - 'Ska With Laurel'

Laurel Aitken was of mixed Cuban and Jamaican descent, and, like Byron Lee, got his start as a hotel singer, performing old mento songs for tourists, and doing some recordings of those songs as well. In the late '50s, he started performing Jamaican-ized versions of popular American R&B songs, and if you listen to his recordings chronologically from between 1957 and 1960, you can practically hear ska developing. He moved to England in 1960, but continued to record and release music in both countries, ultimately becoming a lynchpin in both the first-wave ska movement in Jamaica and the second-wave (two-tone) ska movement in England.

Derrick Morgan - 'Moon Hop: The Best of the Early Years'

In the late '50s and early '60s, Derrick Morgan was Jamaica's biggest star. At one point in 1960, he held the top seven positions on the Jamaican pop music charts with seven different songs. Originally, his songs were boogies and shuffles, in the style of New Orleans artists like Fats Domino, who were wildly popular in the Caribbean in the late 1950s. In 1961, though, he recorded "You Don't Know" (aka "Housewives Choice"), one of the first ska hits. Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster had a legendary feud, even recording a string of antagonistic songs aimed at each other, and their rude boy supporters would often break out in street fights. Derrick Morgan later recorded rocksteady and reggae music, and still occasionally performs.

Justin Hinds & the Dominoes - 'Carry Go Bring Come: The Anthology'

Justin Hinds and the Dominoes - 'Carry Go Bring Come: The Anthology'
Justin Hinds and the Dominoes - 'Carry Go Bring Come: The Anthology'. (c) Sanctuary Records, 2005

Justin Hinds & the Dominoes were prolific recorders, putting over 70 singles on wax in just a couple of years in the mid-1960s, a huge percentage of which became hits. Though they helped lead the transition of Jamaican music into rocksteady and reggae, their ska hits, including "Carry Go Bring Come" (which topped the Jamaican charts for two full months in 1963), remain some of the most beloved in the canon. Justin Hinds continued to tour and record regularly until his death in 2005.