Ska is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat
Gregory Lee and Deston Berry were still in high school when they formed the now legendary Hepcat.
“It really only started because the music we wanted to hear wasn’t available,” says Lee from his home in Hollywood.
The pair were drawn to the reggae rhythms of Bob Marley.
Where rock music started slowly and proceeded to get faster, reggae music was just the opposite, says Lee.
“Reggae started faster, with ska it was almost like a polka, what Cubans call mento. Jamaicans adapted it into ska,” he says. “Then they added every influence they knew, Jamaican calypso, pop, American soul, Latin.”
Being from LA, Lee and Berry were “heavy into soul” and agreed that ska was where they wanted to take their sound.
“The first tour we went out on as a band was southern California and northern California. We went out with the Skatalites who were the inventors of ska in a way. … We formed our own music based on the Skatalites influence. They looked at us and saw what we were trying to do and showed us ‘this is how you do it for real.’ Because of their influence we developed our own way,” he says.
Showmanship is an integral part of ska as well, says Lee. “If you go back and look at early Bob Marley he wasn’t playing reggae, his first love was ska. All the songs he did originally were ska or had some ska flair.
“Bob Marley was playing ska, doing back flips on the stage.”
Ska music, also known as first wave, second wave, third wave, skabilly, and skapunk is hard to define, Lee says.
“The only real way to define it is to go back to the beginning. … There is as much variety to ska as there are languages in Africa.”
The core of the music is to bring people together. To take a dance floor full of individuals and get them to dance together to create an energy that flows back and forth from them to the stage.
It’s a hard job making people feel like they’re part of something, he says. “When we present the right sound, we all get together on it, we really have something there. It’s become our mission in a way. When we go to Europe it’s cold and gray, everyone’s unhappy, we’ve got to make everyone feel like it’s sunny out, be happy. It’s great to see the light in their faces and see them enjoying themselves.
“It feels really good. That’s the number one reason Hepcat is still around. We all have other projects, but this is absolutely fun.”
Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival organizer Dane Roberts is thrilled to have Hepcat perform. “We’ve been trying to get them for 15 years. … They’re some of the best ska musicians in LA, they have a lot of history and close ties to a lot of the bands we’ve worked with,” says Roberts.
“Yeah, I think we’ve been talking to him for 12 years and the timing’s never been right. It’s not an easy place to get to, I think you have to fly then take a ferry and there’s a bus or car in between. … we had to cut everything around it to get there, but we’re pretty stoked,” says Lee.
Hepcat performs July 4 at Ship Point.
Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival July 1-5 victoriaskafest.ca