To Russia With Ska

by Christy Perry

May 17, 2010

Arts journalism alumna, ska music expert, featured on New York public radio

You might not think that the jubilant music of early 1960s, newly independent Jamaica would end up being such a hit in Russia. But it did, and the person who can connect the dots of the transcontinental tune-travel is a graduate of Newhouse's arts journalism program.

Jennifer Davis ('09) recently shared her ska music expertise on WNYC-FM's "Soundcheck." WNYC is New York's flagship public radio station, and Jennifer was interviewed on the show along with two members of the iconic British ska band The Specials. 

"My interest in ska developed when I was living in St. Petersburg, Russia," Jennifer says. "I met some local musicians looking for a female vocalist for their project." 

Her band, the St. Petersburg Ska-Jazz Review, toured Russia and Europe and recorded three albums of the early 60s Jamaican music, which she says is a combination of Jamaican mento, Caribbean calypso, American big band swing and early American rhythm and blues. It's considered the "grandfather" of reggae music.

So why and how would Caribbean island music find its way to popularity in the former Soviet Union? Jennifer explains in the WNYC interview that ska's rhythm emphasizes the upbeat, similar to traditional Russian and Eastern European folk music.

The edition of "Soundcheck," focuses on today's ska revival, which is kicking off as 1970s ska bands The Specials and English Beat embark on major US summer tours. Ska authority Davis gave WNYC host John Schaefer a detailed history of the music and its emergence in Jamaica's early years of nationhood.

Jennifer now writes for SKI magazine, and has written for PopMatters.com as well as several Russian newspapers and her own Beet Salad blog. She credits the Goldring program for sharpening her journalistic skills. "The Goldring program was fantastic," she says. "I appreciated all the support and individual attention we received from Johanna (Keller, Goldring Program Director) and Janet (Anthony, Goldring Career Development Coordinator)."

The musician/journalist cites the intense "boot camp" graduate experience, which immerses new Newhouse master's students in daily skills building and deadline writing, with preparing her for today's new media landscape. "Those six weeks were mostly torture," she jokes, "but I got through it, and I became a better writer because of it."

Christy Perry is an adjunct professor of broadcast journalism and Newhouse website content producer