Chesterton Tribune

Local author Heather Augustyn writes the oral history of ska

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Turns out, one of the world’s leading authorities on ska—the Jamaican form of music which birthed reggae and some of the bossest English beats of the 80s—lives right here in in Duneland.

And Chesterton native and Times reporter Heather Augustyn is getting rave reviews for her newly published book: Ska: An Oral History, released by McFarland Publishers.

No less a luminary than Cedella Marley, daughter of the legendary Bob Marley, penned a foreword for Augustyn’s book, while ska-man Roddy Byers of The Specials and music critic Edward Shed Mitchell are both calling it one of the truly great works in the field.

McFarland—a leading publisher of scholarly and reference books recognized for their serious contributions to the performing arts, sports and leisure, military history, and popular culture—has released Ska: An Oral History for a three-month review period before the book’s official release in January.

Ska: An Oral History is the groundbreaking story of ska told definitively by the musicians who invented it and whose uplifting rhythm and vivacious tunes defined, not only in Jamaica but later in England, the culture and social conditions of a people. Augustyn spent more than a decade interviewing the ska-men and ska-women—many of whom have since died—to preserve the never-before heard recollections of such greats as The Skatalites’ Doreen Schaeffer, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Knibb, and Lester Sterling; Toots Hibbert; Alex Hughes (Judge Dread); The Beat’s Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger; and Lee “Kix” Thompson of Madness.

Augustyn also traces the spread of ska from England to the U.S. through the words of Fishbone’s Dr. Madd Vibe (Angelo Moore) and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Dicky Barrett, among many others.

Augustyn told the Chesterton Tribune that she became interested in ska in the 80s and began seriously to study it after graduating from Chesterton High School in 1990 (you may remember her then as Heather Ransford). “I love ska because it’s such uplifting music,” she said. “It just makes you happy to hear it. Many times the artists are singing about some pretty heavy stuff, like poverty and racism, but the message is sent with a spirited music so it gives you hope. I love the rhythm, strong African rhythms mixed with mento and calypso and the unique Jamaican syncopated jazz that gradually evolved into reggae. I do like reggae too but not as much as ska because of the jazzy lively tone.”

For Augustyn the interviews were not only a labor of love. They were also a lifeline to a time and a place and a people, a last chance really to document the energy of an era. “I lived in Chicago for 10 years during the time when ska had a revival and all kinds of bands were coming through,” she said. “So I’d call up the concert venue or manager and get an interview backstage before or after the show and get a photo pass to take photos during the show. For every one person I interviewed, they gave my five more contacts, because there’s such a camaraderie in the community. These people really wanted their stories to be heard. They didn’t care that I was a nobody. They wanted to be heard by anyone who would listen.”

“Some of the old Jamaican guys were a little tough to understand and spoke in a thick patois,” Augustyn added. “But eventually I got used to it and could interpret. I had to replay a few things a bunch of times on my little tape recorder, but I got it. Some artists I regret not including in my book, because they died before I could get to them. One artist, Alton Ellis, said he wanted to interview and we were setting it up and then I didn’t hear from him for two weeks, and it was because he died.”

“Never before Ska: An Oral History has the story been told by those who were actually there, creating the music,” Cedella Marley writes in her forward to the book. “Ska: An Oral History is a rare one-of-a-kind look into the movers and shakers behind ska music. Ska: An Oral History is a worthy tribute to the days when the music was young, untried, and ready to make a big jump into the world’s ear.”

Roddy Byers of The Specials called it a “truly great book”; music critic Edward Shed Mitchell, “a boss piece of work” and “the best book I’ve read on the subject.”

Augustyn has written for the Times since 2004 and is contributing editor for Shore Magazine and columnist for Get Healthy Magazine. She has also written for a variety of national publications, including The Village Voice, In These Times magazine, The Humanist magazine, and World Watch Magazine. Augustyn was the last person to interview legendary novelist Kurt Vonnegut before his death in 2007. She lives in Chesterton with her husband, Ron, and their two boys and teaches writing at Chesterton Montessori School.

Over 14 original photographs appear in the book, including many of Augustyn’s own. Ska: An Oral History sells for $35 and is available at amazon.com, mcfarlandpub.com, or skabook.com

Augustyn will be signing her book at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5, when the Skatalites play the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival at Lincoln Hall 2424 N. Lincoln St. in Chicago.

 

Posted 11/30/2010