Ska music in the Twin Cities has long had a passionate — if underappreciated — community. Tonight at the Turf Club, ska veterans the Prizefighters will perform in celebration of the band’s second full-length album, Firewalk, alongside other mainstays in the network of local ska bands including Umbrella Bed and Down ‘N’ Dirty Dancehall.
In an e-mail, the Prizefighters’ founder Aaron Porter described the band’s origins. “The Prizefighters started out as a solo recording project for me, and in late 2005 I finally started playing some of the songs with some friends in St. Paul. The goal was to write and perform authentic sounding Jamaican rocksteady songs true to form, as well as Jamaican ska and early reggae.” Thereafter, the band commenced as a four-piece and later added sax, trumpet, and a new keyboard player to constitute the seven-piece lineup.
As of today, Firewalk is available on both CD and “fire red” cassette. “I’ve been playing in bands since the late ’90s,” saxophonist Courtney Klos confesses, “and this is by far the best music I’ve recorded, so I’m really excited for the show. It’ll be fun to finally get this out to the people.”
Since the release of their first album, Follow My Sound, in 2010 and subsequent singles in 2012 and 2013, the Prizefighters have spent time serving as the backing band for many ska originators — from Stranger Cole, Patsy Todd, Roy Panton, and Yvonne Harrison at the Montreal Ska Festival, to “King of Ska” Derrick Morgan at Reggae Fest in Chicago. The band even toured Europe with harmonica player Charley Organaire (a constant presence on early Jamaican ska and rocksteady recordings) in support of a series of collaborative singles the group released in 2014.
“It was an amazing experience and we learned so much about this music that we already loved,” Klos says of touring. “We learned from the people that made it to begin with. So we took that input and those stories from those songs and we incorporated them into the music that you can find on Firewalk.”
The result is a 12-track album featuring an abundance of rocksteady sounds and ska instrumentals, all of which hark back to the original structure of Jamaican recordings — a sound guided by the band’s decision to record in an entirely analog environment. (Listen to “Just Let the Music Play,” The Current’s Song of the Day.)
First Wave ska took hold of popular music in Jamaica around the time the country declared independence from British colonizers. The genre takes influence from Caribbean mento and calypso music, with strong ties to the American jazz and R&B that piped in from radio stations in New Orleans and Miami. Its upbeat rhythm and walking baseline make ska apt for dancing, and it was thus popular with a younger crowd then, as it is now.
Klos explains, “There always seems to be a really young band out of high school or college that’s playing Ska and it’s really exciting for me to see new bands pop up. People will reach out to me and say ‘hey where can we play in town?’ and we try to hook them up with a show.”
Since Klos moved to the Twin Cities in 2001, he’s noted fluctuations in the local ska scene. Many of the original groups, including Rocksteady Breakfast, Umbrella Bed, and the Prizefighters themselves, have grown with their fans over the years and accrued a steady local following. The scene, like many others, took a hit in 2017 with the shuttering of the Triple Rock Social Club, a long-time home for ska bands. But Klos hopes the Prizefighters will find a similarly supportive home in the Turf Club and that in the future, local bookers will feel more receptive to ska and reggae acts.
“There’s lots of people who come to our shows that are fans of all different kinds of music,” he says, “And I think it has a broad appeal, but people aren’t very aware of it.”
Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.