Ska dead? Not at all, fans say
Gabriel Zavala remembers his time in the 1980s ska scene when cliques promoted division and violence was prevalent.
He remembers how hard it was to fit in back then as a good Catholic boy who, up until enrolling in Katella High School in Anaheim in the early 1980s, had only studied at religious schools.
It was during this time that he was beaten up by jocks and tried smoking pot with the metal fans just to fit in. But then Zavala, who said he was studying to become a priest, entered the Cloud 9 dance club at Knott’s Berry Farm one night and his life changed forever.
Songs like “Nightboat to Cairo” and “Concrete Jungle,” with their upbeat sounds and big-band-style horns, played overhead as teens, some dressed in sharp suits and trilby hats, danced around in a circle in a running-man motion, alternating bent-elbow fist-punches, left and right.
He learned the music was called ska, the style of dancing was called skanking and the fans were often belovedly called rude boys and rude girls. He longed to be one of them.
Zavala chronicles his adventures in this period loosely through the eyes of fictional character Rudy Gonzalez in the film “Rude Boy.”
The time, Zavala said, “was all about dancing to the music, looking cool and meeting girls.”
And while the scene has changed over the last few decades, and some may even argue that ska died with the 1990s, its quaint group of fans knows differently.
Tensions were high in the United States in the 1980s. Unemployment was accelerating, and the Cold War was reaching its peak.
While people found different remedies to keep their spirits up, a modest group of young music fans trusted in ska, following United Kingdom-based bands like The Specials, Madness, The English Beat and The Selecter.
The upbeat songs about unity helped revive spirits as fans danced to the music in the skanking style, rode around on vespas and dressed to fit the scene and mimick the genre’s Jamaican founders, donning narrow-brimmed hats, Dr. Martens boots and suspenders perhaps. A lot of the clothes included black-and-white checkered patterns that are symbolic of the multiracial makeup of the early ska bands, said Heather Augustyn, who has written four books on the genre, including “Ska: An Oral History.”
“They were dressing like the subculture that started in the U.K., and that style of dress came from [Jamaican musician] Desmond Dekker and the way they dressed in Jamaica,” said the 43-year-old author from Indiana. “And ska and dance always intertwined.”
She said ska music, which included big horn sections of eight to 12 pieces in its early days, trailed the jazz big band era and people were looking for signs of hope.
“The upbeat music was medicinal,” Augustyn said. “You just can’t be sad while listening to ska.”
In Jamaica, where the genre started in the early 1960s in Kingston, the music provided happiness for the country, which had just won its independence from the United Kingdom, Augustyn said.
She said the young people of Jamaica, often referred to as rude boys, were sometimes struggling to find work and make something of themselves. They were essentially early gangsters who favored sharp suits and sunglasses, she said.
In England, where the music arrived in the years following the Western Indian immigration after World War II, the area was experiencing stifling poverty, Augustyn said. Bands like The Specials, which combined Jamaican ska with punk influences, wrote songs like “Ghost Town” to reflect the period.
And in the United States, when the English ska groups hit the alternative airwaves in the ‘80s, the music spoke to youngsters there too.
“It wasn’t such a bad time here in the U.S., but there was still a need for people to feel better,” Augustyn said.
Ska bands with faster sounds began sprouting up in the country, especially on the West Coast. Los Angeles groups like Fishbone and the Untouchables in the ‘80s would later inspire the installations of ‘90s Orange County-based outfits like No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, The Aquabats and Save Ferris.
“The horns, tempo and mood [in Orange County ska] are upbeat and cheerful, as is most ska,” Augustyn said. “O.C. ska blended these sounds with some punk influences as well. Though we may not hear the sounds of O.C.punk bands like Social Distortion or T.S.O.L or the Vandals, that rebellious anti-establishment sensibility is still there. It manifests in O.C. ska as frivolity rather than anger.
“O.C. ska features themes of youth and drinking and relationships and selling out to become successful, but it also could feature more substantial concepts like racial unity and friendship. Even serious subjects like date rape and prostitution are combined with ska’s upbeat tone and tempo, as was typical of ska from all eras.”
She said she thinks Orange County ska fans were attracted to and have remained loyal to the genre because of the original two-tone sound, a late-1970s ska revival in the United Kingdom.
“It was fun,” she said. “It was interactive music. It was upbeat and after the arena rock of the ‘80s like Bon Jovi and Journey, people were looking for something free of heavy guitar licks and ballads. The horns were different and added a whole other dimension to the punk tempo and mentality. It was pure and simple fun.”
The Gwen Stefani-fronted, platinum-selling, Anaheim-based group No Doubt had its beginnings in ska. The band then moved into pop and dancehall, a genre of Jamaican popular music that originated in the late 1970s.
According to Eric Stefani, founding member of No doubt and brother of Gwen, the ska scenes in the United States and England differed.
“Originally in England, the music and the dress united a lot of people of all races,” he said. “It didn’t translate the same in America but we tried our best.... Our band played with Untouchables, Fishbone, Donkey Show and Skeletones. These bands were more pure ska than us.”
“Rude Boy” director Gabriel Zavala and his brother, Oliver Zavala, co-writer, said one of the big messages they hope to portray through the film — which is being screened April 16 at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana — is that the racism that was once prevalent in Anaheim is still around today.
In February, three people were stabbed and 13 others were arrested when a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim erupted in violence. Klansmen were once the dominant political force in Anaheim, holding four of five City Council seats before a recall effort led to their ouster in 1924, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We were the third Mexican family in Anaheim at the time,” said Gabriel Zavala, 48, referring to the 1980s. “I kind of got numb to what the racism was when we were growing up. I didn’t think it was that way in Anaheim anymore and then bam, in the last couple months, they have the KKK in Anaheim and all of a sudden all these themes and music in the film now are becoming relevant. Things haven’t changed that much.”
Oliver Zavala said while all ska fans would appreciate the film — which cost about $10,000 to make and features ska songs from the 1980s as well as original music — it’s pretty much tailor-made for those who were around in 1980s Orange County.
During the time, cliques from different music genres would clash, racism was rife and violence could often ensue when people disagreed.
“It was a lot different than third wave ska, which was around in the ‘90s and even today,” said the 43-year-old, who performed with the popular ‘90s ska group Save Ferris, which has since disbanded, and co-wrote original songs for the film with Clinton Calton of the punk band D.I.
“A lot of people think the ska scene was a certain way, and we wanted to show how it really was. It was much more serious to be involved in that scene. It was almost like a gang in a sort of way but not so dangerous.”
Today, the scene isn’t nearly as aggressive, and the genre has broken off into sub-groups with pop and punk influences.
Ska fans around the world flock to events like the annual Ska Luau headlined by Starpool, in which Oliver Zavala plays trumpet, and concerts with bands like Reel Big Fish, Suburban Legends, The Aquabats, Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Big D and the Kids Table.
And while the vespas and violence are not really prevalent anymore, skanking is still popular at shows.
In Orange County in particular — which has had its own ska radio show, the Ska Parade, since 1989 — the scene is something many fans refer to as their “ska family.”
The group even held the first Skacademy Awards earlier this year in Anaheim, where fans battled in categories like Biggest Ska Nerd, Best Dressed Skanker and Ska Band We Wish Would Come Back Already.
Thousands of rude boys and rude girls have also flocked to Disneyland for a fan-made group meet-up called “It’s a Ska World After All,” which was last held in 2014.
“It’s tight-knit because most everyone in it joins in their teenage years,” said Evan Wohrman, who sings in Orange County-based ska band Hooray for Our Side. “You’re into a style of music and scene that is not as visible or mainstream as what your peers may be listening to. When you find this group of people who share your not-so-mainstream musical tastes, you’re going to form a stronger bond with them. You’re going to make lifelong friends at shows. Being part of it for so long has been such a positive force in my life.”
The ska communities in the 1980s and ‘90s were just as dedicated.
Brian Mashburn, guitarist in Starpool and Save Ferris, said ska fans in those days would flock to venues across Southern California because of the lack of places in Orange County.
“We used to pile in an old station wagon or someone’s van and go all over So Cal to catch a good show,” he said. “Skeletones and Voodoo [Glow Skulls] at UC Redlands? Let’s go! Hepcat at Las Palmas Theatre in L.A? We’re there! Buck-O-Nine at SOMA in San Diego? OK, here we go! Kids didn’t care about driving all over. It was cool because you would meet people and make friends with groups of ska fans from all over.”
Gabriel Zavala said ska music still helps him through rough patches in his life.
During the editing of the film, he was hit with a divorce, but the work kept him distracted and the music kept him uplifted.
“The thing about ska music, for me, is that when I’ve hit those rough patches and I’ve been blue, I put on ska music and it makes me feel better,” he said. “It just does this wonderful thing to me. That’s a feeling that I never want to let go of.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Rude Boy”
Where: Frida Cinema, 305 E. 4th St., Santa Ana
When: 9:30 p.m. April 16
Cost: Tickets are $10
Information: thefridacinema.org; (714) 285-9422