Singer Laurel Aitken, 71, was there from ska's beginning and has witnessed the music's evolution through its Blue Beat, 2-Tone, third-wave and ska-core eras, all of which developed from the original Jamaican ska. Now, the septegenarian Godfather of Ska has embarked on his first large-scale tour of America, and modern-day audiences have a chance to witness a living legacy.
As Aitken sees it, ska has its roots in American rhythm & blues music of the 1950s. "That's where ska is coming from, from the old American rhythm and blues," he explains from his home in London. "A lot of people don't want to believe that, but if you listen to the old ska, it's rhythm and blues, with the guitar upstroke -- ke, ke, ke, ke -- that's what they used to call ska, but I heard that same thing in lots of American rhythm and blues before ska got popular."
Born in Cuba in 1927, Aitken moved to Jamaica when he was 11. He honed his skills after arriving in Jamaica and was soon winning calypso singing contests and performing at clubs around town. "I am one of the first men to start this music -- one of the first," says Aitken.
He began recording when 78 r.p.m. records were still in vogue. "Not one of these, what they want to call it, 7-inch records, but back when it was 78 speed." In 1959, Aitken recorded what may be considered the first ska hit, the double A-side "Little Sheila/Boogie In My Bones," for Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. "In those days the music in Jamaica was calypso and the boogie music from New Orleans," says Aitken. "So, actually, ska music -- if you listen to early ska . . . it's boogie-woogie. I had the first ska hit in Jamaica, which most people don't know. Eleven weeks it was number one on the Jamaican charts!"
After hearing that pirated copies of his records were selling well in England, Aitken moved to Brixton, England, in 1960. His recordings on the Blue Beat label defined a style of ska and created a foundation on which Aitken built a solid career.
Aitken continues recording and performing in Europe and remains optimistic about his music. "I just play now 'cause this is what I think I know, and think I do best, you know, not like boxing or something else," he says. "I don't know how they're going to accept me in America. They've got so many ska bands over there, and ska singers, I just hope it goes well."