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Social in the ska

And there ska is the father of rock-steady

Grandfather of reggae music

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg

Back to the original family

Ska, ska, ska till you can’t ska no more

Baby, pretty lady

We’re gonna ska, ska, ska till we can’t ska no more


Finding Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd and Pierre Bourdieu in the same sentence must be a rare occurrence indeed. The former was a Jamaican music producer to whom the emergence of ska music (among other genres) is owed substantially; the latter a French sociologist and one of the best-known social scientists of the twentieth century. Their trajectories (probably) never crossed. At first glance, the two are - literally - worlds apart. Yet, in reality, ‘music’ and the ‘social’ are intertwined; in the sociology of music the two collide, and ‘Sir Coxsone’ and Monsieur Bourdieu become closer (Moskovitz, 2006; Deibert, 2001; Jenkins, 2002).

This paper investigates the ways in which Bourdieusian notions contribute to a richer sociological understanding of music (in this case, ska music), in particular through an analysis of what he terms the “field” of cultural production. It is argued that this framework helps us appreciate the social relations and collective determinants that shape the making are re-making of ska, and the influence of contexts – such as the Jamaican music scene - and the existing resources and interests. Firstly, the emergence and trajectory of ska music will be illustrated; an explanation of the idea of “field” and related concepts will follow; finally, the relevance of the latter for the former will be discussed.

The music is ska-ing to town

In its native land, Jamaican-born ska has been hugely popular since its inception in the 1960s. International appreciation of the genre, as well as later revivals in the 1970s and in the late 1980s/early 1990s – particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States – are testaments to its creative and cultural value. Ska has been enormously fecund and influential, giving rise to rock steady, reggae and dancehall; it has expanded its reach into the ‘Western’ world, played by successful bands such as the Specials in the UK and the Toasters in the US; it has merged with other genres such as punk, and is still played by artists such as Madrid-based Ska-P, the American Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Sublime; it has become part of ‘world music’/’alternative’ styles as in the case of Manu Chao; it has made incursions into pop music, for example as in ‘Rude Boy’ by Rihanna (Moskovitz, 2006; Witmer, 1987; Menachem, 2010).

The history of ska shows clearly how a plurality of factors intersected and gave rise to the genre. The American influence on Jamaican music is a widely accepted notion. The presence of “swing” performances; travelling local musicians well-versed in “blues” and other types of European and American music; swing, rhythm and blues, and jazz American records; accounts of local musicians appropriating foreign music sheets are all testaments to the pivotal role that American music played in the development of Jamaican music. This influx of ‘exotic’ (American and European) music did not happen outside a social and cultural context, but interacted with indigenous music styles, such as mento and calypso. Local musicians did not simply mimic what they heard, read and saw, but rather appropriated, modified, transformed the music. It is so, in the early 1960s, that ska music was born (Witmer, 1987; Moskovitz, 2006; Selvin, 2008). 

The proliferation of ska (and deriving styles) is due, to a great extent, to technological means such as radios and record playback systems, and to the creative use that musicians and ‘entrepreneurs’ made of them. In the economic conditions of the late 1950s and early 1960s, being able to afford such equipment was a relatively rare position to be in. Many of those who did would provide music and entertainment to audiences of different sizes, and organise social events that would produce revenues, thus creating the Sound System. Sound Systems were social gatherings similar to discotheque nights, and helped in popularising not only American rhythm and blues records, but also, increasingly, local music, including ska (Witmer, 1987).

Another important element was the burgeoning Jamaican music industry, established through the founding of Kingston’s recording studios, Federal Records, by Ken Khouri in 1954. Khouri initially recorded mento and calypso singles; his producing activities enabled others to become hugely influential producers. To a large extent, it is thanks to individuals such as Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, Sonia Pottinger, Leslie Kong, Lee “Scratch” Perry and others that ska, rock steady and reggae exist (Moskovitz, 2006). While the commercial and financial aspects of the indigenous music industry were undoubtedly considered important (producing was, after all, their professional activity), other qualities were also apparent. Jamaican music in the 1950s and 1960s was not exclusively driven by the quest for profit, but also by the desire to be creative, original, and to express a particular identity (Witmer, 1987; Moskovitz, 2006; Deibert, 2001). This is evident in an interview with “Sir Coxsone”, where he comments on the state of contemporary Jamaican music in the United States. Deibert (2001) writes:

With the current music,” Coxsone weighs in, “these producers, when you look at them you see that they are reducers, not producers. The dancehall music of today lacks creativity, that musical arrangement and the lyrics… . Well, poor lyrics, nothing constructive.”

The social and political circumstances in which ska and other kinds of Jamaican music developed are also noteworthy. The birth of ska coincides with Jamaica’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. The music of the mid-1960s reflected a broader new consciousness and political awareness, and a strong inclination towards the creation and maintenance of a style of its own (Witmer, 1987; Moskovitz, 2006). Jamaican music gained symbolic, activist and nationalist meaning. Deibert (2001) describes the period as “a time, though it was still violent, when Jamaicans were learning to love themselves for who they were—not as Africans, not as faux-British colonials, but as a nation with a shared history of pain, slavery, and oppression.” The mere existence of ska, as well as the music and lyrics themselves, are the product of this broader socio-political context (Moskovitz, 2006; Witmer, 1987).

From Kingston’s dancehalls to Bourdieu’s champ

After having introduced ska music, jumping to the Bourdieusian notion of “field” may seem rather abrupt: the relation between the two is not immediately obvious. However, it will be made clear that considering the “field of cultural production” is a constructive approach in the sociological analysis of ska music. In order to do so, it is necessary to clarify what the field entails. 

“Fields” are historically established, social, symbolic spaces within which people and institutions interact in complex ways, and along two main axes, the economic and cultural dimensions. Fields have specific structures and are defined by their stakes and interests. These may be economic and financial, but they may also entail prestige, success, creative autonomy, political power or independence. Scope for action is both enabled and constrained by the “habitus” (a mix of unconscious or ‘semi-conscious’ capabilities, habits, and bodily markers that are part of one’s identity, and which indicate and shape which behaviours are appropriate to a specific context); by access (or lack of) to different kinds of symbolic “capital” not reducible to market goods (for example, culture, education, or aesthetic competence); and by ‘legitimacy’, defined not only by knowledge, familiarity, and proficiency in a particular area, but also one’s (and others’) awareness of “being in one’s place”. Fields are characterised by conflict and struggle: a zero-sum game where people compete for limited resources is understood to frame the field’s social relations (Heinich, 2008; Jenkins, 2002; Prior, 2008; Becker, 2006).

While this framework cannot provide a complete analysis of ska music, it can certainly help understand the existence of this music genre in sociological terms.

The field emphasises social relations and collectivity, and the power relations that operate in particular contexts and in specific, pertinent ways. Conflict, power and different types of means, capabilities and resources play central roles in the Bourdieusian analysis. While the development of Jamaican popular music must have been driven, to some extent, by commercial interests (Frith, 1988), the historical, social and cultural backgrounds highlighted above undoubtedly shaped the development of ska – the notion of field is useful, in that it helps us define and understand the importance of the Jamaican context.

It also uncovers the dynamics of power, domination and access to resources that led to the formation of ska: these become very clear when one considers a) musicians, their ‘habitus’, legitimacy and means enabling them to access and create music; b) other key players, such as Sound System entrepreneurs and producers, and their commercial, creative, and political interests, as well as their privileged economic and cultural (artistic) ‘capitals’; c) audiences and consumers and their musical taste and competence, and their economic and technological means to access, appreciate and help popularise ska music. All these actors, factors and actions create and exist within a complex web of social relations, conflict and competition, and creative, generative interaction.


The question of what French sociology and Jamaican music have in common may sound like the beginning of a joke; in reality, though, the sociology of Bourdieu is relevant to the theoretical analysis of music, and – in this case – ska in particular. His notion of field reminds us of the social context in which ska came and continues to exist, both in terms of constraints and facilitations; to the relations and interactions between actors such as producers, musicians, and audiences; to the interests, capabilities, habits, attitudes and behaviours of the social actors in Jamaica (and later internationally) from the 1950s onwards. Ska music originated and thrived through social processes, in a specific historical, cultural context with specific stakes. The creativity, originality, independence and success of ska are the products of complex – though constrained – social interplay.  Monsieur Bourdieu reminds us of that.






Beautiful, inspirational and fun. 

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battology \buh-TOL-uh-jee\ , noun:

wearisome repetition of words in speaking or writing.

They weren’t political or surrealist, they weren’t witty or comic. They were only the monotonous evidence of a civic battology.
— George Friel, Mr Alfred M.A., 1972

I kept volleying this along the walls of my skull, aspiring by battology to battle.
— Tibor Fischer, The Thought Gang, 1994



Love is in the air.