Coming back around: the rise of ska in Asia and the return of The Red Stripes to Clockenflap

Photo by Paul Thompson.
Photo by Paul Thompson.

Several waves of ska have washed over different parts of the world since the music style was born in 1960’s Jamaica.

With the popularity of ska now swelling in  parts of Asia, 10-piece ska band The Red Stripes been performing around the region, while building a following here in their adopted home of Hong Kong.

Set to perform at Clockenflap on Saturday, Red Stripes bassist Paul Thompson sat down with Coconuts HK to talk ska, its emergence and persistence and his love of its fast-paced, energetic style — particularly the prominence it gives his instrument of choice.

“As a bass player, when I was doing punk or rock, I was with the drummer in the background and the guitar was always in front and the vocals were always very prominent,” said Thompson, who’s been living in Hong Kong for eleven years. 

“But with ska, it was all about the bass and the drums, so the bass is the loudest thing you’ll hear on a ska record or reggae record. So it was the first music where the bass was put to the front, its a very prominent feature of the music and it all kind of revolves around that.”

From left to right: Hugo Busbridge, Simon Nixon, Cam Otto, and Maninder Kalsi during rehearsal. Photo by Vicky Wong.

Ska grew from the convergence of Jamaica’s rhythm and blues and jazz scenes with the country’s calypso-like mento music in the early 1960s, as the Caribbean nation achieved its independence from Britain.

The style’s up-beat, fast paced rhythm — the guitar’s distinctive ‘ska ska ska’ sound — would later be shifted down to rocksteady beat, then to reggae.

“Bob Marley played ska originally and followed that whole movement from ska to rocksteady into reggae… and then Jamaican music became really huge on the back of that, but it originated from ska, back in the early 1960s,” Thompson said.

From a rock and punk background, Thompson formed the band together with lead singer, and fellow art teacher, Fred Croft about five years ago.

From left to right: Maninder Kalsi, Matt Davis, and Paul Thompson. Photo by Vicky Wong.

The group’s 10 core members are from Britain, Australia and Canada (Thompson calls it “UK with a bit of colonies thrown in”) though its size fluctuates, dropping when musicians are busy and growing when others appear to jam.

Whereas Croft grew up amid’s ska’s birth,  Thompson said he got into ska during it’s “second wave” which hit the UK in the 1980s with bands such as The Specials, Ghost Town and Madness.

“The punk of the UK mixed up with his Jamaican ska from the 60s and created that two tone, what we see as ska, the black and white and the people doing fast dancing, I was more that era.”

“It’s funny how things come back around… later on the USA they had big ska revival with the Toasters, and you heard of No Doubt, that’s the third wave, so they really mixed it up with the punk, very fast paced.

“It’s just one of those things, a bit like fashion, like skinny jeans, it’s kind of timeless and it keeps coming back into fashion, and then fading out and then coming in or being changed.”

From left to right: Fred Croft and Sarah Watson on vocals. Photo by Vicky Wong.

And on that note, the band has ridden a new wave of the music’s popularity in Asia, particularly in Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, countries the band have played in recent years.

“It’s got a huge scene around Asia, but Hong Kong not so much and I think that’s because the size of venue because we are a 10 piece and to get a venue or a stage that can fit you comfortably, is a real challenge.”

Though the Hong Kong scene is less developed, Thompson said the first appearance at Clockenflap in 2014 — together with ska scion Sultan Ali, the son of pioneer Prince Buster — had help boost interest in ska with local audiences.

About the launch their first album, Thompson said the band was looking forward to getting people dancing tomorrow and doing their part to keep the ska wave rolling. 

“They’ve given as a great slot on the big stage on Saturday afternoon, which is perfect for getting into the festival day, it’s a very upbeat kind of music, it’s not something which is for shoe gazing.”

Clockenflap starts next week and runs Nov. 17, 18 and 19 at Hong Kong’s Central Harbourfront. Acts this year include Massive Attack, The Prodigy, Feist, Stormzy, Kaiser Chiefs, MØ, Jungle and many more. 

Check out the full Clockenflap schedule here, and check out our guide on who to watch out for at the festival here.

The Red Stripes will be performing on the Harbourflap Stage, Saturday, 2:15pm – 3:00pm.

The Red Stripes debut album In The Ska East will be launched December 9 at Grapper’s Cellar Hong Kong.

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