Shane Hartman is sorting through old press clippings and band photos from the mid-'90s, back when he played bass in ska act The Jumpstarts. On Friday, The Jumpstarts will restart, playing for the first time in more than a decade, opening for longstanding 2 Tone band The English Beat, so the reminiscence factor is high. Hartman comes to one relic and stops—a picture of him, much younger, crowded into a dressing room with foundational Jamaican ska crew The Skatalites.
"It really was a blur. It seems ridiculous to me now," he says. "I think, looking back now, we realize how lucky we were to have those experiences."
Hartman is still active in Triangle music, currently playing with rock-and-soul adepts The Dynamite Brothers. But looking at pictures he hasn't seen in years makes him nostalgic for the frankly meteoric rise of The Jumpstarts, a whirlwind that saw him play with his musical idols and make a pilgrimage to Jamaica.
When he helped form The Jumpstarts in 1993, Hartman was a UNC undergrad. He'd been listening to ska and Jamaican-derived music since early adolescence. Now that he was playing it, he felt compelled to experience its origins. In 1994, he sold an old MG to pay for his airfare to and expenses in the island nation with Jumpstarts manager Karen Bencke, drummer John Phillips and his girlfriend at the time.
"We booked tickets straight into Kingston, against the advice of all the travel agents," Hartman says. "We flew down over Christmas. I think I was 19."
Once there, Hartman met and spent time with several personally influential musicians, including rocksteady and reggae artist Ken Boothe, and scoured record shops for old LPs and 45s.
"I bought, like, hundreds of records, which was interesting trying to get back into the country," he says, laughing. "[Customs] thought for sure we had smuggled some drugs in, and they got the dogs on us, and they took all of our records out of the sleeves and looked inside the sleeves."
The band's pilgrimage was only part of their shift to a West Indies-educated rocksteady hybrid, a piece in a healthy ska scene that was taking shape locally. The Jumpstarts' shows grew; they played with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and English outfits like The Selecter, and even opened for the rapper Coolio, Hartman recalls with a laugh. But some of their highest-profile dates were with a fellow Chapel Hill band.
"This was the time when the Squirrel Nut Zippers were catching all their steam and making a name for themselves, nationally and internationally. We played with them a lot," says Hartman. "John Willse, our lead singer, used to work in the kitchen with [Zippers frontman] Jimbo Mathus, and they were kind of buddies."
Willse says he and Mathus have similar tastes in music, which they talked about constantly at work. Well before the Zippers' breakthrough album, Hot, the friends figured their bands would make for a good double bill.
"We brought the house down at the Roxy in Atlanta in front of thousands one New Year's," Willse recalls. "And what a statement that made."
But the ska resurgence soon collapsed under its own weight. At its height, No Doubt was inescapable, and Carson Daly sported a rude boy getup on MTV. Ska's mass American culture moment ended, becoming almost a bad word, as Hartman puts it, after that level of oversaturation. This was more than a decade ago, though, and many ska bands, including The English Beat, never stopped playing. Others are now ready for their reunions.
"The people that cared about this music knew the mainstreaming of it would be the end of it, you know—it was going to murder it, which it kind of did," he says. "But ska keeps coming back."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Horns and upbeats."