Thursday, January 15, 2009
Hawaii evokes images of clear tropical waters, gently swaying palm trees and gyrating hula dancers. But there’s a lot more going on in those Pacific Islands than sunburned tourists in new Hawaiian print shirts initially realize.
Oahu-based ska, reggae and punk band Black Square, who will play Monterey and Salinas on back-to-back nights this Thursday and Friday, unleash a fiery volcano of evidence to that effect. Following in the footsteps of politically active punk groups like The Clash and Rancid, the six piece addresses Hawaii’s racism, the missteps of the government and militarism.
“The [depth and complexity] here is something that people don’t realize when they come to vacation,” says Black Square singer/guitarist Josh 86.
Black Square’s “December 7th” looks at the state’s internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. Meanwhile, the group’s “Island in the Sun” describes how native islanders came to lose their homeland. “Hawaii as a whole is a sad story for the Hawaiians,” Josh 86 says. “[Islands in the Sun] is basically about the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.”
The band, which features a three-person horn section, also turns its gaze to international issues far removed from the middle of the Pacific on other numbers. Black Square’s “War Machine” includes lyrics that indict America’s foreign policy. Over a mix of rock and reggae, Josh 86 sings: “They say two wrongs don’t make a right/ Then why we sending all these soldiers to kill and fight.”
“That basically talks about Bush and his war in the Middle East,” he says.
Black Square’s latest CD, Onward, includes “War Machine,” along with a cover of the great ’80s ska punk band Operation Ivy’s “Take Warning.” The Hawaiian group’s take on the song is a little more polished than the ragged original but it’s bolstered by Black Square’s horn section. “Collectively, Operation Ivy is one of our most favorite bands,” Josh 86 says.
While Black Square dip heavily into reggae and ska, Josh 86 asserts that the band’s members all have roots in the punk rock and hardcore scenes. Josh 86 still plays with the decade-old Honolulu punk trio The 86 List, while drummer Brian Kim used to be a member of the California hardcore group, Golem. “Everyone moves around a lot onstage,” Josh 86 says. “It’s not like we stand around stoned.”
The musicians transitioned from punk rock into playing more reggae and ska when Black Square formed in 2002.
“It’s also rebel music,” Josh 86 says. “It’s singing about social causes.”
Though the group started out as a three-piece, Black Square added the three horn players in 2007. “It added a fullness that we didn’t have before,” Josh 86 says.
He adds that the band moved more towards a traditional ska sound on 2008’s Onward. He says it’s a result of the members of Black Square getting more and more into classic ska/reggae acts including Desmond Dekker and Toots & the Maytals. According to Josh 86, Onward’s “Chinatown” draws from early ska’s R&B and soul sounds.
Though Santa Cruz’s The Skaflaws would seem to be a traditional ska group, vocalist Renee Gonzalez says the band does everything from Ween covers to originals that boomerang between hard rock, punk and dub reggae. “I don’t think we ever really considered ourselves a ska band, because we never had horns,” Gonzalez says.
The group began back in 2005 with a group of friends jamming on some Sublime songs. Just two years later, The Skaflaws were playing on the main stage of The Catalyst in a battle of the bands competition. Since then, The Skaflaws have performed in the Santa Cruz venue while opening for national acts Eek-A-Mouse and The English Beat. “Now, it’s kind of like home when we play there,” Gonzalez says.
The Skaflaws stand out from other ska/rock/reggae hybrids due to the presence of a female vocalist in a male-dominated genre and the music’s frequently unexpected detours. “Escape” goes from jogging-in-place ska to slowed-down, dubbed-out reggae. “Man In Gold” is surf rock riding a wave of reggae with a sprinkling of rapped rhymes from someone called the Almighty Aziz, while “Rhythm of the Band” evokes Sublime before going into a blustery hard rock direction.
The Skaflaw’s best song, though, is a cover of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” renamed “Dub is a Battlefield.” The genius remake replaces the rock of the original with a reggae rhythm and echoey vocals. Gonzalez loves Benatar and believes she has something in common with the female rocker who had a string of hits in the ’80s (and appeared locally last year).
“I’ve had a hard time finding a female vocalist, who had a male band,” she says.
BLACK SQUARE plays 9:30pm Thursday, Jan. 15, at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $7. 373-5483.
BLACK SQUARE plays 9pm Friday, Jan. 16, at Giovane’s, 348 San Juan Grade Rd., Salinas. $5. 444-6717.
THE SKAFLAWS play 8pm Friday, Jan. 16, at Wave Street Studios, 774 Wave St., Monterey. $15/general; $10/students. 655-2010.