By Alison Babka
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For a while there, the American mainstream, somewhat curiously, was going gaga over ska. But long before No Doubt bastardized the form and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones moved from underground popularity to the top of the Billboard charts, Paul Stark was tooting the trombone of the Jamaican rhythm, both on his KDHX (88.1 FM) show Ska's the Limit (8-10 p.m. Fridays) and in promoting ska shows.
The pinnacle of his achievements as a ska supporter, however, has been his Ska-O-Rama celebrations, a (usually) biannual concert highlighting the best of the area's ska bands. Nearly single-handedly, Stark and friends created a thriving scene though the wealth of talented bands, including the fantastic MU 330 and the Skalars, didn't hurt.
Ska-O-Rama returns on Sunday, Sept. 5, to the St. Louis Casa Loma Ballroom, to celebrate the fifth installment. The first three years' shows, says Stark, consisted solely of St. Louis-area bands, but he opened the festival to regional bands starting with No. 4. "After word got out on the ska Internet groups that it was kind of turning into a big deal, people started asking if they could come play which I thought was kind of weird, because it's really not that big a deal from my perspective, but from the audience's, it seems to be. We even got a note from a band from England who were touring America and asked if they could play Ska-O-Rama. The perception is that it's some big old festival."
Those appearing on the bill are The Ambiguous They, Cataphasia, Dan Potthast (of MU330), Fat Cactus, the Murder City Players, Orange Tree, the Radioactive Bananas, runforyerlife, the Postals, the Secret Cajun Band (who are reuniting and traveling from all parts of the country for the gig), Corey Dixon and the Zvooks and What's Wrong with Nate, along with the DJs for the evening, Stark and noted Chicago ska collector Chuck Wren (according to Stark, Wren has the largest ska collection in the world).
"There are more debuts this time around," says Stark, "more bands that have not played St. Louis before. In addition to the Midwestern debuts of several regional bands, he says, "there are three young bands who are going to be starting off the night it might be their first time playing anywhere other than VFW halls and places like that What's Wrong with Me, from Fairview Heights; the Postals, who are from Belleville; and the Radioactive Bananas, who played the last Ska-O-Rama but have changed their lineup quite a bit, so this is the debut of their new band."
After stints at the Hi-Pointe and Galaxy, says Stark, Ska-O-Rama found its true home at South City landmark the Casa Loma Ballroom, where the organizers, admirably, treat the bands like stars. "We could never do it anywhere else," he says of the Casa Loma. "Even if attendance dropped down and we could fit it in a smaller place, as long as you've got that many musicians around, there's really no other place to do it. We take half of the balcony and make that the band area each band gets a 12-top table for them and their friends; they store all of their instruments up there, and there's just plenty of room."
Stark's the first to admit that ska's space in the mainstream psyche isn't going to last forever, and it doesn't seem to bother him a bit. "I see it waning again. The roller coaster has gone for 35 or 40 years, and it's going to do it again. This may be one of the highest peaks for ska in the U.S. right now, but it's not going to keep going. My friend Bridget pays attention to advertising, and she keeps referring to ska as the advertising bed of the "90s. Every McDonald's commercial, every soap commercial you hear that rhythm going on in the background, and that's almost a sign with it being done with for right now. It's everywhere in every ad Madison Avenue's figured out that that's good background music so, yeah, it's on a peak, and it's going to come back down again. But I think something else will spark it to bring it back up.
"It just shifts around the world a bit. There are some areas that it remained strong before this peak happened in the U.S. The Germans are still doing it; they didn't have such a big gap between the Two Tone and the third wave it just kind of kept going there. The South American bands are so strong that I think if it settles down here, another pocket of the world is going to keep it going until America discovers it again the next time around."