If you’re looking for a pedigree in your ska-reggae band, then Baltimore’s Scotch Bonnets is the group for you. Led by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Kristin Forbes, the band has backed HR from Bad Brains as well as Roddy Radiation from the Specials, paying tribute to both hardcore punk and the second-generation English ska that inspired them. Forbes herself has also done some pretty impressive side work, most notably with Dismemberment Plan singer Travis Morrison and the veteran New York ska outfit, the Slackers.
It all comes second to the band’s own music, though — a terse, minimalist skank that puts Forbes’ joyful shout of a voice front and center, along with her tasty guitar work. On their most recent single, “Go, Adrian,” the band leaves plenty of space for the bouncing, playful groove, adding in some dexterous bass work as icing on the cake. The song’s rhythm is so sunny that it’s easy to miss the sharp political message in the lyrics, a stark lament about the conditions in the band’s “sister city,” Washington, D.C., or “the district,” as they often call it.
“How many people gonna die in the district today?” Forbes sings, “When the shots ring out, everybody down!”
“I’ve spent a lot of time as the underdog, so I guess I sympathize with a lot of D.C. in that sense,” Forbes says. “I moved to D.C. to play in a band with the singer from Dismemberment Plan, but I lived there after that band was over. I was a bike messenger, so I have a very intimate knowledge of the city. I was the paper trail during the Bush years. I’d pick something up at Exxon that would go to Haliburton or Dick Cheney’s office. To have that weird insider/outsider view of government made me really interested in D.C. as a place and as a culture. I’m fascinated with it as a city. I can’t live there anymore because it’s become so horrendously expensive, so I might be tied to an idea or a memory, but maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about it.”
The interesting mix between the purely melodic and the political in the Scotch Bonnets’ songs is an outgrowth of the ska and reggae genres, which have long combined social statements with irresistible grooves.
“I love that sometimes even without saying anything, it can be political and revolutionary,” Forbes says. “Since the late ’70s when Jamaican music migrated to England, it’s been a very racially blended music. I like the fact that I can play shows and it’s not just a crowd of white people. I like that it’s a diverse audience. People might say that the scenes in Baltimore or D.C. are still divided along racial lines, but not my scene, not at my shows. And that’s especially important now, when our country is so divided along racial lines. Music can be a really unifying thing. It makes it easy for people to come together.”
In fact, the openness of ska-reggae culture was what allowed Forbes to begin playing in the band in the first place. Even though she was skilled on multiple instruments by the time she was 19 years old, she hadn’t made a lot of progress finding a band.
“I don’t know if you want to get into Kristin’s misogynistic history of playing music,” she says with a laugh, “but quite honestly I started because I’d never been able to play in other bands. A ska-reggae band was the first group of guys who said, ‘Kristin, come be in our band.'”
After hearing some of the other bands in the genre, Forbes began to fall in love with ska-reggae, and she realized there was a lot of room for variety under that umbrella.
“You can be technical, or you can just have a groove,” she says. “You can have it all. It’s so all-encompassing in all elements of music. I like the fact that you can incorporate different elements into it.”
Groove is a concept that Forbes talks about a lot. “The groove is infectious,” she says. “The grooves force you to dance. I’ve been to a lot of indie-rock shows, and people don’t dance! It’s music; you should feel something. It’s visceral. You should want to dance. I hate it when you look at the crowd and they’re just standing there. It’s so frustrating. A band puts it out there, but the crowd should give it back. It’s circular. It’s like magic. But with ska-reggae, people move. I don’t understand how bands can play and have people stand there and still feel satisfied.”
And if D.C. is the Scotch Bonnets’ sister-city, then Tin Roof is their home away from home. Typically, a hard-touring band doesn’t really know much about the venue they’re going to be playing on a given day, but Tin Roof, and owner Erin Tyler and bartender Johnny Puke, are all special to Forbes.
“They’ve created such a great environment,” she says. “One of the band members will only drink a specific kind of cider, and Erin reached out and said, ‘Tell your bandmate he can bring a six-pack of cider and put it behind the bar so you won’t blow through your tab and you’ll make more money.’ Who does that? What bars think about telling a band not to drink away their pay? Most places would just take your money. I think there’s just this love vibe that’s palpable there.”