“Music has no border! Ska has no border! Kindness also has no border! We came here to share energy with you!” The nine-piece pink-suited ensemble of world-class musicians known as the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra stands before a crowd of thousands and proclaims in these few words the sentiment behind an entire four-day event. The Supernova International Ska Festival at Fort Monroe, Virginia is ground zero for ska fans who come from all over the globe to attend the world’s largest ska festival. But they also come to see each other. Supernova is, as rude girl Joanna Wallace describes it, a family reunion. “A pure love fest,” she says. “For the first time in a long time, I am hopeful and feeling positive about things to come,” says Wallace, from Minneapolis.
That positive feeling and camaraderie has always been at the heart of ska music. When it first began in Kingston, Jamaica, ska lifted the still-colonized and gave them an escape and hope. When it immigrated to the UK via the Windrush, ska warmed black West Indians with sounds of home and energized white alienated youth. When it spread to America and the world, ska elevated all races, all classes, all genders, all ages from varying depths of oppression. Ska just feels good. And when ska is experienced together, it feels good together.
At Supernova in September, the Jamaican legends that take the stage demonstrate their dedication to the music that started with them. Stranger Cole transports the crowd to 1960s Jamaica through sing-alongs of his hits like “Rough and Tough,” “Run Joe,” and what is considered by many to be the first reggae song ever recorded, “Bangarang.” Dressed sharp in a suit with a baseball hat, Stranger performs his duets with the phenomenal Dunia Best, backed by Eastern Standard Time. Percussionist Larry McDonald’s hands and arms fly into a frenzy on the congas, long grey dreads swaying, eyes both fierce and warm. In his 86 years, Larry Mac, as he is affectionately known, played regularly with Bob Marley, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Gil Scott Heron, to name just a few. Performing with the supremely talented David Hillyard & the Rocksteady Seven, Larry Mac provides the backbone rhythm of Africa that runs through the veins of all who take the stage here.