Ska: On the edge in Baltimore Music: Ska has been around, mostly underground, for years, but new bands and new fans may be changing that.

Up Front

August 20, 1998|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On Route 40 west of Baltimore, there is a warehouse used by dozens of bands as practice space. It's a virtual musical foundry, with hardcore next to R&B next to the fuzztone sounds of an indie band. And it's here, in a room covered with centerfolds, graffiti and the remains of a once-elegant tin ceiling, where one of the best hopes for a local ska scene breeds.

The members of the Mobtown Beat have the sanction of popular culture to pilfer any of the influences that are blasting around them. After all, that's what the commercial bands have been doing. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, Real Big Fish and even Sublime have drawn from all the goodies of modern music to give ska new popularity.

The Beat, on the other hand, has focused on fanning the soul flame that ignited ska back in the late '50s and early '60s.

"The bands that are out today have no concept of what ska is," said band keyboardist Scott Boardway.

Unlike its popular cohort, swing, which crested in the 1940s, ska has always operated in music's underground channels. That is, until now.

"When I started, all my friends, they laughed at it," said Boardway. "They'd say, what . . . is this, circus music? But the next thing you know, three years later, 'Let's hear your band!'"

The Jamaican art form, established in the early '60s by such bands as the Skatalites, the Maytals and Desmond Dekker, took American soul and R&B and blended it through a Caribbean beat of chugging horns, a distinctive after-beat guitar and a heavy peppering of percussion. The result is American music as seen through a fun-house mirror. Perhaps its distorted, almost alien approach is what keeps it fresh.

While its signature syncopated, chopping beat was co-opted by the likes of Bob Marley, who went on to become the grand Rasta of reggae, ska flourished in its obscurity.

In the '80s, the genre manifested itself as the "Two Tone movement" of British ska bands, many of whom were signed to the Two Tone label. Ska roots were evident in the music of such bands as the Specials and Madness.

Ska isn't just a sound. It's a style. You might see serious fans in three-button suits, porkpie hats, dress shoes or suspenders with a white T-shirt. The black-and-white checker pattern that runs through much of their dress represents their call for racial unity.

These days, ska is going through what fans call the "Third Wave," in which groups unabashedly cross-pollinate with punk, power-pop or anything else that gives them an edge.

"Now every town has six or eight ska-punk bands," lamented Chris X, owner of Reptilian Records at 403 S. Broadway, which has long supported the Baltimore music scene and sponsors a ska DJ on Tuesday nights at the Brass Monkey Saloon, 1601 Eastern Ave. The underground music store has put out its own ska records on its Reptilian Ska Division label and has watched the scene evolve.

"Traditional ska and older ska music takes talented musicianship to be able to play it and play it well, but in my opinion, by blending the ska-punk, you're just excusing sloppy musicianship," said Chris X.

But rather than ignoring the ska-punk movement, Reptilian has had the bands, mostly high school kids with no CDs to show for themselves, play in the store.

"You got to start somewhere," Chris X said. "High school kids aren't very proficient with their instruments yet, and they got the punk attitude because they're adolescents."

One such band is the Smizokes, which has been playing in clubs for a year. With members scattered from Annapolis to the Eastern Shore, the Smizokes find themselves competing in Baltimore with the more popular indie-rock scene.

Smizokes singer and guitarist T.J. Morris said he grew up listening to the hard-edged ska-core band Operation Ivy. When he heard that the Smizokes, then strictly a punk band, were looking for a singer, it wasn't hard to convince them to explore ska.

"Our music is ska-punk, or skunk, with heavy riffs and dance beats," Morris said. "The horns get way out of control, and we don't stick to tradition. We try to go in any direction we feel like going with it."

In 1993, another group - a handful of students at Loyola College - didn't know anything about a ska scene. The Smooths were just hoping that they could make it through a set.

"We put on a ridiculous set of really bad music to see if people would come out and see us play," said Smooths singer Tom Gilhuley. The band's excursion into musical pranksterhood - wearing mismatched suits and getting hassled by campus officials for advertising gigs at bars - began to attract a following.

For some of the band members, school became secondary. After being recommended to Side One Dummy Recordings in Hollywood by the D.C. ska powerhouse the Pietasters, the Smooths put out a CD, "No Brakes," and got swept up into the summer's hottest roving musical carnival - the Vans Warped Tour, which is heading to Europe.

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