||Roots, Roch, Reggae!
Ask anyone about the history of ska music in Rochester, New York and chances are you'll get a brief timeline of the past 5 years consisting of The Miggedys and maybe Professionals, if that. Fact is, most fans today are unaware of one obscure and forgotten chapter. I'd like to change that by throwing our focus back twenty years when the Jamaican ska was first performed in our upstate wilderness. In order to recognize the past and educate the present ska-loving community 1998, we'll take a closer look at these origins.
Globally, reggae had taken the world by storm throughout the 1970s, many thanks to Bob Marley and the Wailers, and before the end of the decade it became a viable form of pop music and culture. This demand brought the onslaught of innumerable compilations exported from Jamaica to UK labels. On the cusp of the 2Tone dance craze, which had yet to happen in England, it's realistic to say this sudden glut had definite influence which still impacts ska fans today.
Therefore when you say 1980 in conjunction with ska, most people get 2Tone era Britain in mind, and certainly not Rochester, NY of all places. Still, as influence would have it, an American band called Bahama Mama had been playing reggae locally. The Lonesome Cowboy 45 was pressed that year and like most singles, only 1000 were made. It was put out by Richard Storms, founder of the Record Archive on his Archive Records imprint, based at the store's original location on Mount Hope Avenue. What's more noteworty for the purposes of this article, is that the B-side is a hot ska instrumental entitled Upstate Skank, written by guitarist Jim Kraut.
Always in the hopes of bringing the readership a scoop, I contacted Jim (now living in Florida and working as a clinical psychologist) for the lowdown on this release. "That 45 is a collector's item. I heard a rumor from somebody about ten years ago that it was selling for $40 or $50 in New York." According to Kraut, in the 1970s, the band had been playing reggae for years with some ska. When Lonesome Cowboy came out, they had been listening to a lot of the old Studio One material, Coxone stuff and 60s compilations being release on UK-based labels. Kraut says "In our band, the ska developed out of reggae, whereas in the big picture the original reggae developed out of ska." With what was going on in England at that time, Jim doesn't deny that they were into the 2Tone staples like the Selecter, Specials, Madness and Joe Jackson; he simply emphasizes that as a band, their primary focus was on the earlier Jamaican roots.
As it turns out, Upstate Skank was just one of the many ska tunes the band had written. In fact, the local compilation put out by WCMF radio in 1980 called Homegrown (after the radio show of the same name) features the band, whose contribution was a ska cut entitled 'Careful'. "Interesting song, but it was a terrible recording" Jim recalls. More ska material can also be found on the Bahama Mama Live album, also on Storm's Archive label. When assembling the artwork for the (Lonesome Cowboy) sleeve he explains, "I remember looking through old cowboy books at the Rochester's Rundel Public Library, trying to find the most unromantic cowboy portrait, because obviously in that song we're going against traditional cowboy motifs."
Today, Jim continues writing and in 1994 recorded a solo project still tentatively in the works. Other Bahama Mama personnel such as horn players Ken Curry and Charlie Frieda, vocalist Ron Stackman, along with bassist Jim Schwarz subsequently went on to form Big Roots, the longest-running reggae band in town.
(Originally appeared Hoi Polloi! #5 pages 17-18, March 1998)
Sleeve photo features Abbott, E. C. "Teddy Blue in 1879"
Excerpt from We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher
First published in 1939 by E. C. Abbott and Helena Huntington Smith