Ska marked the true beginning of Jamaican popular music, coming to prominence during the early and mid-'60s right around the time the island was granted its independence. Ska ensembles were generally a blend of electric instrumentation and horns most popular in jazz (saxophone, trumpet, trombone).
Although structurally simple, ska has a bevy of influences, synthesizing American R&B, jump blues, Jamaican mento, calypso and other Caribbean styles, big-band swing, Afro-Cuban jazz, pocomania and other local religious folk music, and European ballroom dances. Of those, the first three -- R&B, jump blues, and mento -- were the most important building blocks. Jump blues tunes -- both sax-driven instrumentals and vocal numbers by artists like Wynonie Harris and Louis Jordan -- had become wildly popular at Jamaican dance parties, with sound-system operators making frequent trips to the U.S. searching for the hottest and rarest 45s. As R&B shifted into rock & roll, less crossover-oriented American performers like Little Richard and Fats Domino also became Jamaican favorites. In 1959, when the boogie beat had become less important in rock-oriented R&B, top sound-system owners like Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Duke Reid (as well as restaurateur-cum-producer Leslie Kong) took matters into their own hands, forming their own labels, acting as producers for local talent, and recording the music their audiences wanted to hear when it was no longer readily available in the U.S. From there, the music took on distinctly Jamaican characteristics, melding influences from all the different styles in which Jamaican instrumentalists had been trained. The most important of these was mento, Jamaica's first indigenous musical form; it was essentially a blend of Caribbean calypso and Jamaican folk music. Mento ensembles used the banjo to play chords on the off-beat, and when this practice was transferred to Jamaican R&B recordings, those off beats were punched up and strongly emphasized because of R&B's emphasis on driving rhythm. This was essentially the birth of ska, and that rhythmic emphasis continued to dominate Jamaican music for decades to come. Important ska vocalists included Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster (himself a sound system owner), Desmond Dekker, Toots & the Maytals, and the very young Bob Marley and the Wailers; the Skatalites, featuring a number of virtuosic soloists and led by the mercurial trombonist Don Drummond, were far and away the top instrumental group, and also served as the house backing band for Coxsone Dodd's prolific Studio One. Ska's popularity declined in 1966, when the slower, cooler rock steady style found favor with younger listeners during the particularly hot summer; moreover, ska lost one of its top performers that year when Don Drummond was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend and committed to an institution (he died there several years later). Ska enjoyed a brief and popular revival in the U.K. during the late '70s and early '80s, thanks to the enthusiasm of many British punk fans for reggae records, and the skipping, infectious ska beat in particular. A more rock-oriented take on ska became popular in the U.S. during the '90s, although it was much farther removed from the music's Jamaican origins than the British version had been.