The hiccupping sound of ska is alive; in fact it appears to be eternal. It might seem unlikely since its roots go back to the early ’60s in Jamaica where it was soon supplanted by reggae, but if you drop by the Jambalaya any given Monday night, where Gabe from Pressure Beat Soundsystem spins ska vinyl from various eras for 20- and 30-somethings, you'll see what I mean. But before that, we have a minor ska explosion with arguably the first ever American ska band, The Toasters, playing Friday at the Red Fox, followed the next night by relative newcomers The Aggrolites at Humboldt Brews.
Raised in England, Toasters founder Robert "Bucket" Hingley grew up listening to ska and played in Brit ska bands as a youth, so naturally when he relocated to New York City he wanted to do the same.
"I came to the USA in 1980, which obviously was like the zenith of the 2-Tone scene in Europe; pretty soon after that it collapsed. We started the band here in 1981," he said, calling from SoCal where The Toasters were beginning the Cali leg of their US tour.
Although the beat is slightly different, ska came from the same music scene that spawned reggae. "It all has the same roots in Jamaican culture, but if you start digging, the granddaddy of them all is ska," said Bucket. "Ska came first and reggae came later. That's something a lot of people can't wrap their head around; a lot of people who went on to became big reggae stars -- Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals -- they all played ska music originally."
He bought his first ska record, Millie Small's hit "My Boy Lollipop," when he was around 12. "I got into it early, got bitten by the ska bug and it never got out my system. I never really felt like chasing other types of music. In fact, there's not much else I listen to these days ’cause I think contemporary pop music is pretty crappy."
He says when he started The Toasters, the American ska scene was minimal. "We were pretty much a voice in the wilderness at that time." But he persevered, and 30 years later he's still playing ska. The Toasters today is something he calls "a Mission Impossible crew," an ad hoc touring combo with horns and a rhythm section backing Bucket on guitar and vocals. "It would be hard for me to tour with the original band because two of them are dead and the other two don't want to play music anymore, so I've got a bunch of like-minded younger guys who join me driving around the planet playing ska music. It's working out quite well."
As noted, on Saturday The Aggrolites hit Humboldt Brews with some SoCal ska. Formed in 2002 from the remnants of two L.A. reggae/ska bands, The Vessels and The Rhythm Doctors, The Aggros started out backing reggae/ska icon Derrick Morgan and took it from there. Their debut disc, Dirty Reggae, came out in 2003; they've since jumped to Epitaph spin-off Hellcat Records where among other things they served as backing band on a solo album by Rancid frontman (and Hellcat owner) Tim Armstrong.
The S.F.-based band Diego's Umbrella plays something they cal "gypsy-pirate-ska-rock" at the Red Fox Saturday, drawing influences from such disparate sources as Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly and The Clash. They're on tour with The Real Nasty, an East Bay alt. country trio with a twist: percussionist Matthew "Smitty" Smith, formerly of Albino, plays an Afro-Cuban drum box called a cajon. Local genre hoppers Absynth Quintet open.
If you've been following the fortunes of the Eureka Inn you know it's slowly coming back to life under new management. In recent weeks music once again became part of the picture with accordionist/one-man-band Lindy Mantova (father of the guys at Mantova's Two Street Music) playing for dancers.
Friday night they take another step with the Eureka Inn Ballroom Revival featuring the Berel Alexander Ensemble and a set by DJ On Hell. "The idea for the show is to bring new life to the ballroom with a fun all-ages event," says Berel, "and to raise money to help the band get down to Yoshi's. We have a gig at the Yoshi's in S.F. this coming Tuesday. We've been working with this promoter down there who's been booking different genres there." What genre is BAE? "I'm kind of neo-acoustic soul folkster hip hop. I've been calling myself a folkster, kinda like a hipster, a play on that word."
This version of the Ensemble has Berel out front with his guitar, Brian Swizlo on keys, cellist Mike Lee, back-up vocals by Lorenza Simmons and Bianca Mankai, with rhythm section Corey Winer and Fuzz Bernhardt on drums and bass respectively.
Future plans for the Inn include reopening the Palm Lounge -- ABC approval is still pending -- so watch for the return of jazz to that venue.
Poet Nicholas Karavatos, a former local who now teaches in the United Arab Emirates, returns to Arcata for a Thursday reading at Northtown Books "in spontaneous collaboration with electronic guitarist Jeff Kelley," who, as Karavatos poetically explains, "plugs his guitar into a Pod X3; in the effects loop of the X3 is Boss MT2; into Boss ME50; into DigiTech GNX 1; out of X3 into Akai HeadRush and a Line6 DM both used as phrase samplers." In short, Kelley's a looper. Should be spacey.
The somewhat folky Willie Perez has been holding down the fort at a relatively new place in Ferndale, Café Main Street. Friday he's joined there by Spanky McFarlane of Spanky and Our Gang fame and local blues/gospel/soul sister Karen DuMont.
The Alibi's Monday Night Budget Rock, on Feb. 7, features San Diego alt. country songster John Meeks, who plays with a band that includes bassist Jimmy LaValle from The Album Leaf and violinist Matt Resovich from Black Heart Procession. Judging from the couple of songs I've heard, the sound is a bit like Calexico meets Burrito Bros (and that's good). DJ Central Valley Smith opens.
If nothing else, pending skate parks are a great excuse for a benefit. The latest would-be park is in nascent form in Trinidad, and to get things going they're bringing EastHum reggae stars Woven Roots to Trinidad Town Hall Saturday night to raise funds. DJ Lobsta spins; Humboldt Spin Collective dances with fire, presumably outside. (They'll be right next to the fire station.)
Same Tuesday at Arcata Theatre Lounge it's Del the Funky Homosapien, a dude who's been on the cutting edge of hip hop since he started out 20 years ago at age 18, rapping with his cousin Ice Cube. Working with the Hieroglyphics crew in Oakland he helped make that city a center for underground hip hop. You'll find his latest, It Ain't Illegal Yet, on Bandcamp. On the opening track, "Don't Stop Rappin,'" Del proclaims, "I make records even if you don't buy ’em, go figure, that's just who I am... I assure you I won't stop rappin'." Right now he's on tour with Bukue One, a hip hopper raised in a Black Panther household. Serendipity Project, Dub$tax and DJ Rashane fill out the bill at the ATL.
Last but far from least we have the rising star from New Orleans Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and Orleans Avenue playing next Wednesday at Humboldt Brews on a tour with Venezuelan funk/acid jazz combo Los Amigos Invisibles. Shorty was raised in Treme (for those who saw him in that great series) and played in brass bands starting at age six. With Orleans Avenue he mixes that N.O. tradition with shades of funk, pop and hip hop, pulling the music in a whole new direction. Don't miss this one.