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Rocksteady Ska-lawags

Austin's Stingers put the buzz back in a tired genre by revisiting its roots

Ska -- that venerable Jamaican-born music -- has endured as many ups and downs as the Democratic Party, and right about now it's just as dead and buried as an avowed McGovernite's chances of winning a criminal court judgeship in Lufkin.

These days, respectable critics must speak of ska if not in whispers, then certainly in the most pejorative terms possible. This music, after all, was supposed to have gone out of style -- for the third time, mind you -- sometime after grunge's final death rattle and before the mercifully brief Gap-financed neo-swing boomlet.

But along comes the Stingers, a wild-eyed six-piece collective of Austin-based ska true believers, chasing carping critics like this one into the weeds. Vocalist/guitarist Jonny Meyers admits his band is a tough sell until you get to know it. "We say we're a ska band, a rockin' ska band, and we get put into a category we don't fit," he says. "You have to say 'traditional ska,' and then you have to explain what that is."

The Stingers' sound is as classic as this car and as breezy as a ride in it.
The Stingers' sound is as classic as this car and as breezy as a ride in it.

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What that is sounds like a band that evolved in America about the same time that the Specials, the English Beat, Madness and the Selecter were spearheading the Second Wave ska boom in the UK in the late '70s. Meyers agrees, up to a point. "We think our influences are even deeper than that. Our main influences and what we think we sound like comes more out of the Jamaican singer-songwriter rocksteady tradition of people like Desmond Dekker and Toots and the Maytals. [Former Killer Bee] Papa Mali came up with the best description of us. He said we had 'Jamaican pop songwriting sensibilities.' It's more accurate to describe us as '60s Jamaican pop than to say 'ska band.' "

Unlike so many of the skate-punk ska kids of the last decade, Meyers has taken the time to learn the history of the music he performs. He is conversant with not only the genre's earliest days but also the lineage of obscure ska forerunners like bluebeat and mento. (Even money says so-called ska singer Gwen Stefani would define "mento" as "a Freshmaker.")

Mento was the rough, ribald, very African-sounding Jamaican music that became ska when American soul was added to the mix. The immense influence that Memphis and New Orleans soul, rock and roll and early R&B had on the development of ska is all but forgotten today. Lucky Kingstonians who had radio sets in the late '50s and early '60s could pick up Deep South stations broadcasting from far across the gulf. American 45s also trickled into Jamaica via cane cutters returning home from South Florida's immense sugar fields and apple orchards along the East Coast. These 45s found their way to legendary "sound system" operators (mobile DJs) like Prince Buster, Duke Reid and Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, who exposed them to the Jamaican hoi polloi at huge dances in Kingston's tenement yards and later founded ska record labels.

For the Stingers the process was reversed. "We obviously have some American music influences, because all of us went from American soul, rock and roll and R&B to ska. You can hear it in our lyrics and in our music," says Meyers. "But the ska torch has been passed on to the Third Wave stuff, Bosstones-type ska, where they've strayed from the traditional and gone more into the punk rock and other styles."

The Stingers couldn't do that if they tried. "We're old men. We're older and slower than them," laughs Meyers.

But the Stingers is a big-tent band, welcoming all to its shows. "When the ska kids come out and hear us, they really dig it," says Meyers. "But we do draw a crossover crowd. We play at the Continental Club, and that's not a ska club. We pull in people who just wanna have a good time and dance, and some of those people will want to learn about this style of music from hearing us, and they'll ask, 'Where are you getting this type of music from?' And we'll say, 'It's ska,' and they'll say, 'No, it's not.' " Meyers can only cackle at the irony: One of the purest ska bands in the land is constantly being denied its own essence by fans who think ska is No Doubt.

But what of true ska? What will resurrect it from its pop-culture grave? As Meyers sees it, better songcraft. "We try to use really good songwriting with pop sensibility, which is the way ska was in the beginning," he says. "We listened to Bob Dylan and a lot of other great songwriters growing up, and you're able to use that in ska."

Maybe the Democrats should look to ska survivors like the Stingers for inspiration. If they could write a platform with half as much pop sensibility as a Stingers tune, we'd never have to worry about a few befuddled South Floridians' votes again.

 
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