Excerpt from Paul Liberatore’s review of Soul Ska, Published in The Marin Independent Journal
The Rise Of Soul Ska
Soul Ska is a nine-piece, multiracial musical collective launched in 2014 by keyboard player Jonathan Korty.
The hottest band in Marin right now?
That just may be Soul Ska, a nine-piece, multi-racial musical collective launched in 2014 by keyboard player Jonathan Korty, one of the erstwhile teenage musicians who formed the popular instrumental funk band Vinyl in Mill Valley in the 1980s.
Soul Ska headlines the Great American Musical Hall on Friday night, celebrating the release of “Propaganda,” a debut album with seven original songs recorded at Allegiant Studios in San Anselmo and produced by David Simon Baker, who has also worked with ALO, Jackie Greene and Mother Hips.
The last time Soul Ska played the Great American they opened for the English Beat, one of the British bands that sparked the ska revival in the 1980s and ’90s. Since then, Korty says, “We sold out every show we did, including Sweetwater, a Rancho Nicasio barbecue and a bunch of festivals, including the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. It’s been a great three years. For a band coming out of Marin, we’re one of the few that can headline the Great American right now. We’re definitely on the rise.”
A precursor of reggae and rock steady, ska originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s and combines Caribbean music and calypso with strains of American jazz and rhythm and blues. For Korty, Soul Ska is a happy return to an ebullient style of music with a progressive political world view that first captivated him when was a teenager.
“A lot of us growing up in Marin in the ’80s were listening to ska,” he recalls. “Ska was a huge influence on everyone. It was very popular.”
And then it wasn’t.
Over the years, Korty believes, ska was eclipsed by the phenomenal popularity of reggae to the point that by the early 2000s, ska had all but faded from the Bay Area music scene.
“I looked around and saw that there were no ska bands anymore,” he says. “When I was younger there were bands like the Uptones and Undercover Ska. I’d always loved ska, and I knew a lot of people who also loved it, and since there was no ska around here, I decided to put a band together.”
He was inspired by his stint as West Cost musical director for Jamaican guitar pioneer Ernest Ranglin, a gig that climaxed with Ranglin’s 80th birthday concert in San Francisco in 2012.
With that experience behind him, Korty patiently began assembling his dream band over the next couple of years, bringing together top musicians — including up and coming young Fairfax stars Gardner Goezte on guitar and bassist Tommy O’Mahoney — from the local bands Vinyl, Albino, the Monophonics and El Radio Fantastique.
“As this band formed, we developed this great chemistry,” Korty says. “We have all these different musicians and all these different alliances that came together.”
The piece de resistance was the addition of lead singer Sean Sharpe, aka “Stymie,” longtime leader of San Francisco’s Pimp Jones Love Orchestra.
“He’s such a great front man, “ Korty says. “I knew I had to build the band around him.”
For the first time in his career, the veteran Marin musician finds himself with a couple of women bandmates — trombonist Liz Larson and singer Noelle Glory.
“After being in bands with all guys for 20 years, it’s really fun and refreshing to have some female energy onstage,” he says. “With women we appeal to a different demographic right off the bat. We connect with female fans.”
A recurring visual motif in ska culture is a black and white checkerboard, a symbol of racial unity.
“That’s a message that ska brings that’s always been appealing to me,” Korty says. “It’s not just about playing music for dancing. It’s also about political awareness and racial unity. The ethnic makeup of Soul Ska includes people of Puerto Rican descent, Filipino, Irish, African American, German. It’s kind of amazing. So the theme of racial united resonates with this band and creates an inclusive vibe. Since we’re going through such divisive times in the world, that’s something important nowadays.”