Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2010

Courtesy of Avex

Having spent their lives spreading the gospel of ska, surely the members of Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra have been to the Caribbean isle where it was born?

“We’ve never played—or even been—to Jamaica,” admits trumpeter “Nargo” in an interview at the office of the band’s record label in Aoyama. “The timing hasn’t been right. We should have gone a long time ago, but it never seems to work out.”

Twenty years—and two deaths—since its recording debut, the band is set to release its 15th album, World Ska Symphony, and back it up with a string of appearances in the Tokyo area.

Given how many of Japan’s ska and reggae tribes make pilgrimages to drink at the font of Jamaican rhythm, it’s telling that the members of Skapara, as they are affectionately known, have never been to Jamaica.

“We discovered ska through British ‘two-tone’ bands like The Specials, and only then went deeper into original Jamaican groups like The Skatalites,” explains soft-spoken bassist and songwriter Tsuyoshi Kawakami. “We were mostly students when we formed, and had played in lots of different kinds of bands.”

Over their 15 albums, Skapara have been willing to experiment with a boatload of styles, from jazz to rock to surf to pop. Dabbling in everything from hyperactive twotone ska punk to out-and-out pop, World Ska Symphony is fresh evidence of their eclecticism.

“We are always thinking about the meaning of ska: Does the beat itself make it ska, or is there something else, like the mood, that makes it ska?” asks trumpeter Nargo rhetorically.

“There’s Jamaican ska, two-tone, and then we’re trying to make ‘Tokyo ska,’” adds Kawakami. “So it gets further and further away from its roots, but then we’ll periodically bring it back to the core ska sound. Recently it’s not something we worry about a lot, but there was a time when core fans were saying we weren’t ska at all. It became a bit of a battle—and we weren’t about to be outdone.”

The new record contains oldschool, laidback songs like “World Ska Cruise”—but with the presence of certified J-pop stars Tamio Okuda and Crystal Kay, it’s also immediately accessible to the masses. “The last album, Paradise Blue, was mostly instrumental, core ska,” says Nargo. “But this one, for our 20th [anniversary], is more of a party vibe.”

Over 22 years since percussionist Asa-Chang founded the group in 1988, it’s not only Japanese fans that have taken to the band’s heterodox “Tokyo ska” style—they’ve also got a rabid following in the West, and make regular forays to Europe and North America.

Another aspect of the group’s longevity is the simple fact that—as witnessed by this writer at last fall’s Tokyo Jazz festival—these boys can jam. “I think we’ve become more powerful, and our tempos have become faster,” says Kawakami. “Everything is smoother now. We’ve had 20 years to hone our show on stage, which is really where you build your stamina and refine your act.”

Last summer, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra also hosted their first Tokyo Ska Jamboree festival, inviting domestic warhorses to jam with overseas innovators such as the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble. The event proved a success, and a second installment is planned for this year.

To what do Nargo and Kawakami attribute the longevity of ska, a once obscure dance form that emerged 40 years ago among the poor of a small Caribbean island? “The beat is simple, so anyone can understand it,” offers Nargo.

“Because ska is so simple, it’s easy to add new elements to it,” chips in Kawakami, noting the current success of girl group Oreska Band. It’s also true that the original ska pioneers borrowed heavi ly f rom North American popular music forms. “By infusing ska with contemporary elements,” Kawakami says, “it can resonate with listeners of any era.”

World Ska Symphony is available on cutting edge/Avex.

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra
Veteran ska band. Mar 12, 7pm, ¥5,250. Studio Coast, Shin-Kiba. Mar 27, 6pm, ¥6,800. Ryogoku Kokugikan. Apr 24, 4pm, ¥6,800. Tokyo Taiikukan, Kokuritsu-Kyogijo. www.tokyoska.net