Various Artists, Rough Guide to Ska (Rough Guide Records, 2003)

Listening to the latest addition to the Rough Guide series, Rough Guide to Ska, it occurred to me that the very title of the series is itself a bit of a cop-out. By presenting itself as something incomplete, unfinished even -- as the term "rough guide" suggests -- they can get away with an awful lot of mediocrity. There is a tendency to lean in one direction rather than providing a complete overview, as evidenced by their Rough Guide to the Asian Underground, which exclusively featured one record label, Nation, at the expense of others, yet was still titled as if it was definitive. The catch-all genre terms with which Rough Guide labels their releases are not covered nearly as comprehensively as one might like to think. In this context, it will not be surprising to discover that the Rough Guide to Ska covers only one aspect of the musical form, and is conspicuously short of the classic artists that one would expect to encounter in any guide to ska. In fact, the album might be better titled -- to quote the liner notes -- the Rough Guide to "Jamaican music produced by Vincent 'Randy' Chin during 1960-65."

In compiling any history of Jamaica's many different musical styles, there is always the difficulty of nailing down the definitive sound that distinguishes, say, ska from rocksteady or lovers' rock from reggae. There is simply too much musical cross-pollination to define these genres in anything but the broadest possible terms. Unfortunately, the Rough Guide team has chosen to define ska as Jamaican music derived from American blues forms. Subscribing to the theory that ska was an outgrowth of the US records and radio stations that drifted down through the Caribbean in the late 50s and early 60s, a distressingly large amount of the disc doesn't sound very ska -- or Jamaican -- at all, as if the music was specifically chosen to validate the theory of US influence. However, without denying outright that influence, it is fair to say that this is a skewed and fragmentary view of the evolution of the musical form, and a disservice to the memory of the great ska musicians and the multiplicity of their influences, as well as missing the boat in terms of presenting what is truly unique about the genre.

The opening track, the Skatalites' "Malcolm X," starts the record out with promise, but the groove soon gets subsumed to the task of explicating the American influence on the development of Jamaican music, here over-represented by five early tracks that wear their US blues, doo-wop and R&B influences on their sleeves, and also feature muddy production values. Whether the poor sound quality is a result of the tapes' age, or because of the technology used in recording, I doubt that remastering would add much of interest. Especially egregious is Alton & Eddie's "Let Me Dream," which has an Everly Brothers-type harmony and the dreadful lyric "You're the angel of my dreams." Described in the liner notes as "pure Jamaican doowop balladry," it is not so clear what is Jamaican about it at all.

Things start to pick up around the disc's halfway mark, with Roland Alphonso's "Blow Roland Blow," where the music is finally freed to explore the white hot staccato that for many defines ska far more than the vague R&B that preceded it. "Blow Roland Blow" and Lester Sterling's "Skaramont" both feature some superb horn playing, experimental drum patterns, and far better sound quality than the earlier tracks. Another treat is Lord Creator's "Don't Stay Out Late." While clearly derivative of its US influences, the honey-sweetness of Creator's voice, along with a subdued rocksteady groove and some mannered horn playing, give it a subversive, clearly Jamaican vibe, as do its innuendo-laden lyrics about Creator escorting his "underage" date home because her daddy says "Dont stay out late." The Skatalites' "Freedom Ska" also stands out for its nice mellow groove, as does the Maytals' "Lost Penny," which features some lively vocals and an irresistable rhythm.

While intriguing as a document of the output of a particular Jamaican recording studio at a time when Jamaican music was beginning to come into its own, the Rough Guide to Ska ultimately sells ska as a genre short. Too much emphasis is placed on proving a historical thesis -- namely, that ska emerged from the local interpretation of American music -- at the expense of documenting the real history of ska. All this might not be an issue were it not for the plethora of alternate, truly comprehensive guides to ska, notably the Trojan Records box set. Of course, this album never claims to be anything more than a "rough guide," but I would have to say that between a third and a half of the featured tracks are not in fact ska but rather some regional variation on early US pop and blues, and that the quality of the guide suffers greatly from sins of omission.

[Inigo Jones]