Ska music for some folks will forever remain a curious musical oddity. It remains too niche to be mainstream, yet manages to poke through to wider recognition every few years.
Those confused by its lasting presence and influence will be more confused to see the Shrine Expo Hall host the Skanking Reggae Festival this Sunday, March 20, where artists from the United States, Mexico, El Salvador and Jamaica will share a stage before thousands of ska and reggae lovers.
“When people think of ska, they think of a genre from the late ’90s that’s kind of goofy,” says Isaac Safdeye of Goldenvoice, who admits his surprise at the size and longevity of the scene in Los Angeles. “People in our generation remember it like that. As all these demographics have grown older, people have assumed that there’s not a lot of interest for it anymore.”
But in recent years, he says, there's been a resurgence in ska's popularity. “For some reason which I’ve yet to fully understand, there’s a new generation of kids that are really hardcore identifying with the ska scene. It’s one of the few scenes in Southern California that has stayed loyal to its roots.”
Safdeye has Adrian Gonzalez to thank for this realization, whom he met through another marketer at Goldenvoice. Since 2000, Gonzalez has been one of ska music’s most important proponents in Southern California.
“Before I’m a promoter, before I’m a musician, I’m a ska and reggae fan,” says Gonzalez, who plays drums with ska group Raskahuele. “For me, ska and reggae are the ultimate.”
Gonzalez arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico 16 years ago and launched Bolochos soon after arriving. Initially created as a custom merchandise shop for ska and reggae groups, it has since evolved into a music promotion house for those same groups. To date, his company has worked with various independent promoters as well as larger companies, like Live Nation and Goldenvoice, to help promote ska and reggae shows in the area.
Gonzalez launched the first Skanking Reggae Festival six years ago in Pico Rivera. Ska and reggae groups from Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Guatemala, Jamaica and many other nations converged on the Pico Rivera Sports Arena over the years to perform for a predominantly Latino audience that prefers its music en español.
As the festival grew, Gonzalez noticed that the English- and Spanish-speaking ska scenes were too divided and realized that the festival could be a means to unite them. He shared his idea with Goldenvoice, which helped him achieve his dream by moving the festival to a larger, historic venue in Los Angeles, the Shrine, and by helping him sign the first high-profile American, English-language ska group to the festival: Orange County ska-punk veterans Reel Big Fish.
“Obviously Reel Big Fish have no clue who I am,” Gonzalez explains. “I can make them an offer and they’ll just brush it aside by saying that my festival is solely for Latinos. So there had to be a conversation that spelled out how this wasn’t just an opportunity for these artists or for promoters to make money but also an opportunity to unite [these] separate ska scenes.”
“We wanted to offer a larger platform for these artists to do their thing,” Safdeye adds.
The festival’s three headliners, Reel Big Fish, Panteón Rococó and The Skatalites, represent not only the growth and diversity of ska and reggae since its inception in the 1950s but also the unity that Gonzalez wants his festival to have across multiple generations of performers and fans.
As Gonzalez explains it, The Skatalites are part of the initial, first wave of Jamaican ska bands that emerged in the late 1950s and early ’60s (the group’s lineup today counts only one founding member, Doreen Shaffer). Reel Big Fish are part of the third wave of ska, who were influenced by second-wave British ska groups such as The Specials and Bad Manners. Panteón Rococó are part of ska’s fourth wave, which has seen the music's popularity grow in places like Mexico and Central America.
“Those three headliners may be an odd mix,” Gonzalez admits, “but when all is said and done, what triumphs is ska. We hope to start an exchange with these artists so that Mexican artists can play in the United States more often and these other artists can head down to play in Mexico, too.”
“The scene has more strength in Latin America than it does here, but it’s all in the projection,” Safdeye adds. “There’s a reason why they continue to come to the United States and work this market.”
Skanking Reggae takes place at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall this Sunday, March 20. Other performers include El Gran Silencio, Inspector, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Raskahuele, 8Kalacas and Adhesivo, plus music by the Dub Club DJs. Tickets and more info.