For those who are about to go ska, Carnes is defending you • Sacramento News & Review
Sacramento writer attracts attention and promises sales around unlikely speech for maligned musical genre
By Casey Rafter
Cheerful horns, basses and guitars flowed from speakers and echoed murals paying homage to musical art through vinyl record images, bouncing notes and colorful graffiti tags. As a small crowd gathered in the sun in front of Phono Select Records, journalist and author Aaron Carnes was ready to defend those explosive sounds – and ready to explain why he had written his new book “In Defense of Ska”.
The audience was ready too. Heads and feet moved to the sound of The Specials’ “Gangsters”, and Lynval Golding’s rhythm guitar wakka-wakka colored the air. After waving to the crowd and signing copies of his book, Carnes was introduced by comedian and other ska fan, Keith Lowell Jensen.
“We listened to Aaron Carnes ”In defense of the Ska‘playlist on Spotify; it was my idea, ”Jensen said with a laugh. “[If] we’re going to start taking some credit for me for some things, he was originally going to write a book called “In Defense of Capitalism”, but I said “Maybe ska? You like ska too. This would be better, then you are welcome.
The title serves the book well, but the pages of “In Defense of Ska” contain more than a call to readers to stop rejecting the genre – known for its fast, quirky tempo and the use of horns on traditional rock or punk instruments – or snickering at their ska-loving friends. Throughout the book, Carnes provides anecdotes that read as a recording of his many music-based religious experiences.
In an anecdote, Carnes recalls attending a ska show with Colombian ska group Memoria Insufiente. During the show, he realized that ska has the ability to cross all cultures.
“They cover ‘2-Tone Army’ from The Toasters, but in Spanish. At that moment I realized how complex the culture is and how all of that is captured in the style of the music that I love, ”Carnes said as he read his book. “[The] song is written by a New York band, referencing a British label that revived Jamaican music. It is played by a Colombian band and enjoyed by Mexican teenagers.
Carnes, who became a music journalist in 2009, understood that ska was not taken seriously, especially by his journalist peers. Popular books on music have rarely validated ska as part of the zeitgeist of American music in the 1980s and 1990s. He explained that “In Defense of Ska” is his effort to beat opponents with the fist. and stop the reflexive mockery at the mention of the word “ska”.
“It’s like the ska bands have been taken out of this conversation,” Carnes explained. “The more I worked as a journalist, the more it became clear to me that this was just a punchline. They didn’t really have their own version of it. I thought of defending ska as a fun way to comment on the place of ska in culture. [To say,] “I read a book about how you think ska sucks, but you’re wrong. “
Jensen discussed Carnes’ rejection of the idea that ska progressed through “waves” as different cultures learned styles specific to this genre. Carnes acknowledges that ska originated in Jamaica – before reggae – then spread to Britain before migrating to the United States in the 1980s, but he maintains that he maintained a constant presence in the tune of the times throughout these eras. In his book, Carnes speculated on where the ska might spread next.
“In this chapter on Mexico, I said that if we were to accept the wave argument, Mexico would be the fourth wave,” Carnes said. “Most of these [Mexican] bands heard about ska from american bands in the 90’s. The wave theory of Ska says it comes and goes – I don’t see it that way. I see the ska is from Jamaica [and] evolved into reggae. Two-tone bands [in Britain] ska revived. This has been a point of reference – except for bands that specifically opt for an old Jamaican sound. The two-tone was so popular in England, and it became such a cult thing in the United States that it really made waves around the world.
Carnes added that most of the ska that migrated to the United States are a version of the British revival. Bands playing 2-tone and ska in the United States began to do so in 1980 and 1981. Although the genre was established in the United States, it did not gain notoriety until the mid-1990s. At that time, the ska culture had strong roots in many metropolitan cities.
“The [bands playing ska in the U.S.] were all extremely popular in their perspective scenes, ”he noted. “Then they started touring, you saw record companies forming, zines forming. When ska first became popular in the 1990s, it [had] spent 15 years as a cohesive genre in the United States. So to think of it as a wave is a bit of a silly way to think of it. When music became unpopular, music continued to exist.
The cover of Carnes’ book was photographed by Cam Evans, who Carnes interviewed in 2018 about the 60-page photography magazine created by Evans, “Sacramento is on fire!“In July 2020, Carnes, Evans and lettering artist Ken Davis spent eight masked, hot, half-pandemic hours at 924 Gilman, a concert hall for all ages in Berkeley.
“I followed the guy and we’ve been in touch ever since,” Evans said. “This is how I had the opportunity to accompany him to Gilman to photograph the cover of“ In Defense of Ska ”.
Carnes first presented the idea depicted on the cover to his editors. In response, they asked a cartoonist to provide an interpretation, but Carnes had an opportunity to create a scene to photograph for his book. He said that on the day of filming he was distressed.
“I was stressed all the time – it was my only shot to convince my editors that we could do a photo version of this book cover,” Carnes recalls. “Some of the graffiti [on the cover] is just Gilman’s graffiti and some that we’ve added. On the back, the only thing we did was add a paper clip to the merch table
Jensen praised Carnes for using something DIY, much like the bands performing the music Carnes writes on.
“It’s not an image of a wall with the lettering then photoshopped on it: it’s actually hand painted onto an actual wall at the Gilman Street Project,” Jensen said. “I’m glad they rejected the drawing [Carnes] first proposed.
Evans admits that while he has a great deal of love for ska, Carnes’ book gave him new insight as well as some familiar comfort.
“I read the book recently. It’s like a warm blanket for me, ”Evans admitted. “I am a huge ska fan. It’s the kind that pushed me towards punk rock. Some details I knew and some things were totally new to me.
Often times, music fanatics can refer to a point of origin for their favorite artist, album, or genre. Carnes discovered ska in the early 1990s before many so-called “third wave” American groups caught the attention of the youth of the time. He said that most of his generation discovered ska during a live performance.
“I was just a kid from Gilroy – I loved alternative music, but I felt really intimidated at these shows,” Carnes said. “I was a real Primus fan and went to Primus shows, but the audience scared me. I don’t know why, Primus is very old-fashioned.
“I saw Skankin ‘Pickle in 1992. They wore costumes and had props,” Carnes continued. “It blew me away. I loved that the audience felt extremely welcoming and inviting to me. The shows were wacky and pretty silly, but then they had songs about how they hated racism and they just sang one song. serious song about it. They were serious about things that really interested me.
Carnes does a great service to ska and its culture on the pages of “In Defense of Ska”, providing fans, haters and the uninitiated with the history of ska and blazing a trail for its possible future. In his book, he speaks both of the feeling of belonging to this unique and welcoming subculture of society, but also of a feeling of ownership of the thing that drives his passion.
“We totally love ska. We didn’t care who was laughing at us. We laughed at them for missing out on the sheer joy of this music.