Q&A with Local Ska Historian Charles Westmark
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
By August Edwards
It is safe to say that ska is not at the forefront of our minds. I would argue that it never should be, anyway. Someone who might disagree with me is 29-year-old Albuquerque resident Charles Westmark. Charles has an extensive, obsessive knowledge of New Mexican ska, and with that he started to assemble a digital music archive that took off due to unforeseen excitement from a few other fanatics.
“Up until a couple years ago, admitting you liked ska was a profoundly uncool and almost shameful thing to do,” Charles said. “I would imagine that some people in the bands I can’t find so far [to put in the archive] would probably prefer that I don’t find the recordings at all. But this has a nostalgic value for me, and it seems like a few people feel that way. If it inspires someone to start playing music, then, cool.”
Charles explained to me that first wave, or traditional ska, started in Jamaica. The musicians were primarily influenced by jazz players, like saxophonist Charlie Parker and trombone player Melba Liston. “Ska” was the percussive sound the guitar would make.
Ska then took on a second wave in England. This was called 2 tone, and combined Jamaican ska with new wave. Injustices that shrouded these bands, comprised of Black and white people, have not changed. In fact, in 2019 the Specials put out their first album in decades called Encore – the second track on it is titled “B.L.M.,” wherein The Specials guitarist and vocalist Lynval Golding recounts his experiences with racial discrimination.
While this was happening, a few ska bands formed in the coasts of the United States. This would be known as ska’s third wave because bands made the charts and received notable radio play as of the 1990s.
All of this, and the '90s brought Albuquerque its own strong stint of the genre. I am excited to have interviewed Charles to hear his singular experience with ska.
What is the project that you are working on?
I’m putting together a complete and comprehensive catalogue of every ska band’s recording in Albuquerque, and now the state of New Mexico. I’ve got recordings going back to 1991 to the present.
When I was in high school, I was going to every ska show in the city that I could. There was a reunion show in 2012 for a band called Giant Steps that played here from I think 1994 to 2000. I had bought both of their CDs at one of their reunion shows, and I got the cassette that was still in the shrink wrap.
[After acquiring more tapes over the years,] suddenly I had all of these 1990’s Albuquerque ska cassettes, so I paid to get them transferred over to digital and put them on a Google Drive. I shared the Drive with a couple of people who were kind of excited about it, which I didn’t expect. I had friends who started adding material to it, and over the course of three days it doubled in size. So far it features 17 bands.
What’s been the ska trend in ABQ since you entered the picture?
When I was 13, there was an insane amount of ska bands in town. It felt like there was a ska show every three or four days. It was huge and vibrant. It was strange, for whatever reason there was a huge local scene that lasted for about two and a half years. Even when it was popular in town, it was still an unusual thing. Recently, it’s gotten a little more popular, or at least acceptable.
Made in Bangladesh were the first concert I ever went to. I was so excited after that I didn’t sleep for three and a half days. Full-fledged ska kid moving from there. Their demos are on the Drive. One is a bootleg of a song they played during their middle school talent show. Obviously, it’s terrible and doesn’t have much entertainment value but it’s just kinda cool to have, coming from a completion-ist mindset.
You've alluded to ska being this shameful thing. What does that mean to you?
I’d always catch shit for liking ska—it’s disgustingly happy, or tacky. You can listen to interviews with bands in the ‘90s and the general attitude was that it became this uncool thing. You had bands that, for a short amount of time, dropped their horn sections, like Less Than Jake or Goldfinger.
Do you think your project could spur a movement of ska here in New Mexico?
The only thing that would make ska come back is people starting bands and other things, like funding music education. And it’s not only about teaching people music. If a trumpet player is just pushed into it and learns how to play trumpet but has no idea that there’s anything other than marching band, orchestra, classical, and jazz, then that doesn’t promote much imagination. Imagine the excitement of band kids when they discover horns in rock. If you encourage music and art, ska will follow.
By the way, we get it, guy with checkered suspenders and porkpie hat. You like ska. You’re not accomplishing anything there. Let’s talk about what’s really deep and cutting about music and let people make up their own minds.
Anything else you’d like to add about local music?
Don’t just look specifically for ska bands, look for any local band that could be incredible for any reason. [Here in Albuquerque, that could mean] going to see Grp.txt, which is a punk band with a saxophone, or going to see a great metal band like Anesthesia, or local jazz players like guitarist Michael Anthony or Paul Gonzales on trumpet.
I was super into ska but biased toward other music. I assumed that other music that was local, sucked. That is artists tearing down artists. We should never do that. You can find people who are incredibly passionate about stuff in town, like Adam Smith in Crushed!?. Nobody else is gonna hang off rafters and split their head open and tear the input jack out of their guitar and do really, really crazy shit at extreme financial sacrifice for a dedicated fanbase. He gets really stressed out, but he’s the backbone of the music scene whether he likes it or not. And he doesn’t.
If you are interested in this ska archive, email Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org.