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An Interview With Pannonia Allstars Ska Orchestra

Pannonia Allstars Ska Orchestra

Before the band’s take off to the London International Ska Festival 2013, I was lucky to grab the P.A.S.O.’s mastermind Kristof (KRSA) for an interview. The big band from Hungary have built a unique status in their homeland’s music scene by delivering energetic live performances, top-class albums and loads of related activities. The power of their fan base became clear when they grabbed the title “Album Of The Year 2012” in  the poll that we did at REGGAE STEADY SKA.

RSS: Many many great bands around the world would love to be at the London International Ska Festival and have applied to play. Spaces are very limited. You are a great choice, of course, with quality and a big following: Still, were you surprised when Sean asked P.A.S.O. to come over?

KRSA: Yes we were kind of suprised. Especially because we were among those who wished to play at this highly ranked event, but it did not work out before. We had a chat about the festival with Kevin Flowerdew (Sean’s brother) when the Do the Dog Skazine featured a small article on Pannonia Allstars Ska Orchestra. The whole event sounded to be something really great where it would be great to perform once, but it was not manageable back then.

So it was quite all of the sudden to receive the invitation. On the other hand though we have some hard-core fans in the UK who regularly come to Hungary to see our shows – some of them even flew to Hungary just to check out our special show with the Hungarian National Radio’s Symphonic Orchestra in Budapest. They are really committed, we are always amazed by them. So I guess their requests counted when Sean picked our band for this year’s festival.

We are really excited about this and looking forward to playing at LISF. We have experienced a lot of good vibes all around the continent with PASO and we are wondering how the general mood will be at the LISF compared to other big ska festivals like This is Ska or the Mighty Sounds where we have performed before. So again we are pretty excited about it!

RSS: A considerable effort is neccessary to get a nine-piece band from Hungary to England. How do you make that happen?

KRSA: Yes it takes a lot to make this happen, but we believe that this is a very special event so we can deal with all the difficulties. By the way PASO counts eleven members – logistics is an extremely hard issue – even just to get everybody transferred to the airport is a tough thing. But we are kind of used to that – we don’t fit in one van, we usually use two of them when we tour around.

RSS: What can the British/global Ska audience expect from your set?

KRSA: Our style is quite diverse and I think we’ll try to give a taste of most of the spices we have. The base of our music is jamaican ska for most of the time – sometimes it stays pure and sometimes it is mixed up with different influences. For example we include some of our own musical heritage and have some Hungarian folk melodies in the songs, then sometimes we add some more modern approach and have some dancehall, raggamuffin in the mix which are more up-tempo. We also play some rocksteady, early reggae, reggae, rub-a-dub and some traditional ska covers. I would say that most of the stuff we do is rooted in Jamaican music, but a lot of them have a twist. However we try to only twist things that much that the original styles can be recognized and enjoyed.
This is an example for an extreme fusion: Hungarian folk tune meets ska played by PASO accompanied by a symphonic orchestra:

RSS: Which other acts at the Festival are you looking forward to seeing or meeting?

KRSA: We are looking forward to meet people with whom we have played before like Ed Rome, with whom we have joined the stage when he was on tour with The Big in Germany, or Mr. T-Bone, whom we booked a couple times to Hungary and played with him in Slovakia too, or Vin Gordon (aka Don Drummond Jr.) who played in Hungary with the Skatalites. I’m sure it will be nice to meet them all again. I don’t know if we’ll have the time to go for the boat ride event of the festival, but if we have I’d love to join. I’m quite unhappy about the fact that we miss the Rico Rodriguez show – we have seen him live when we opened for him once, but it would have been great to see him perform the Man from Wareika album. If we have the chance we’ll see Freddie Notes on Saturday, and there we could meet the guys from Intensified and the Upsessions with whom we have also played before. Unfortunately we’ll surely miss Ken Boothe’s show since we are leaving on Sunday afternoon.

RSS: Since your English is excellent, I guess you have been to England before. Were you a guest at the Festival in recent years? Any England-related stories to share?

KRSA: I have been to England a couple of times, but unfortunately haven’t been to the LISF before and although we have played in many countries and were near England at some occasions, this will be the first time for PASO to perform in the UK.

We are more related the other way around – we have collaborated occasionally with some artists from England, like the Mcs from the Trojan Sound System, Mc SirReal (Maroon Town, Dub Pistols, Freestlyers), PlanetMan, Shaka Black and we have been on the road with Squid 58 on the Easter Ska Jam tour in 2006 where some shows ended up in serious jams and backstage parties. All of these bring back joyful memories.

RSS: The Hungarian Ska scene may not be well-known around the rest of the world. How would you describe it? What keeps it alive? I hear you are active in various Ska-related projects?

KRSA: It is really really small nowadays. There was a scene in the eighties influenced by UK bands like Bad Manners, Selecter, Specials, Madness and the new wave. That was the first sign of ska in the country. A few of them had a stable following, they were able to pack halls, but meanwhile the skinhead culture was mistaken for a far-right wing thing which led to a lot of confusion… After that there was a gap and some bands started to play 2tone influenced ska in the late nineties and some third wave ska bands joined them. The scene was more of a sub scene of the punk scene then, but it worked, there were regular ska clubnights. The next chapter was probably set off by the arrival of our band in 2003, since PASO was brought together with the aim to introduce Jamaican ska to the Hungarian audiences – nobody played traditional ska influenced music in the country before that. We also started a radio show and a soundsystem specialized mainly in traditional ska just to spread the culture and inform people about the root of it all. Later on we organized weekly club nights and a small ska festival yearly besides that and started to book international ska acts to Hungary (New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble, Dr. Ring-Ding, the Toasters, King Django, Victor Rice, etc.). There were a lot of working bands back then compared to the number of the bands today. Those were the days when the Hungarian SHARP movement started and a lot of people got more into the culture. Unfortunately it eroded. Nowadays most of the leading members of this movement are living abroad and there are only a few anti-racist skins in the country.

A few years later we started some side-projects. A reggae-dub-psychedelic-jazzy one called PASO’s Roots Rockers and another one called PASO Traditional Ska Special. This second one is a cover band that plays songs mainly from the ’60s ska era from musicians like the Skatalites, Prince Buster, Derrick Harriot, Toots and the Maytals, Eric Monty Morris, Bob Marley, Jackie Opel and so on. We started this project because we love these artists and songs and we wanted to introduce these wonderful musical gems to our audience – a lot of our fans are not ska fans or are not aware of the background and the roots of the music and this way we would like to influence them to get to know these classics. So basically we are trying to use our popularity to get traditional ska closer to the people.

The current situation is that the scene has shrunk, a lot of the bands has stopped working or are only working just occasionally. There is not much happening in ska, new reggae acts are formed more frequently, but the reggae scene has also shrunk. As a new color on the Jamaican musical palette in Hungary our drummer – who is especially in love with early reggae and rocksteady – teamed up with the few musicians who were constantly trying to play that music and formed the Mighty Fishers. They play rocksteady and early reggae, which is not ska, but since the whole scene shifts a bit towards that direction I believe it’s relevant. They play quite an authentic stlye but people are really not aware of it here, they are much more successful outside of the country. I really hope that one day there will be a revival. Until than we can’t really do anything but to work hard. So that’s the short history of the Hungarian ska scene so far.

RSS: What are your further plans for 2013 and beyond?

KRSA: We celebrate the 10th anniversary of the band in 2013, therefore we are going to have a big anniversary show with a lot of guests in June in our hometown. We’ll play on the Sziget Festival on the 8th of August on the World Music stage, and we’ll play on most of the bigger Hungarian festivals. We also have plans to play in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. There’s a date already confirmed for Mainz Reduit for the 17th of August, but we’ll post the dates to our website and facebook site regularly.

We would also like to keep our side projects going. PASO’s Roots Rockers’ debut album was mixed by Victor Rice and has been released as the second disc of the Lovemonster double album. Now we have released an EP with two original veteran deejay artist from Jamaica, Kojak and Trinity. We have shot a music video for it in Kingston. Besides that we are planning to do some new recordings and shoot some more videos. We’ll try to keep ourselves busy.

RSS: With your double album „Love Monster“/ P.A.S.O. Rockers“ you topped the list of the Best Album 2013 at REGGAE STEADY SKA. Apart from making the best possible music, what tips have you got to build a strong group of supporters?

Well, as I have previously mentioned we are in an unusual position since the main reason why people in Hungary like us is (probably) not that we play ska music, but that because they like our live performance. At the time when we were formed there were not that many energetic live bands in the country and that gained us quite a big attention and following. That resulted in that there are a lot of people on our shows who only know about the whole genre because of us and they are not following the scene. As I said still from time to time we try to enlighten our following and make them learn about the stlye and the roots of the music with the previously mentioned methods (radio show, soundsystem, covers). We take it as a cultural mission. I guess our fanatism is catchy and fans are more involved if they see that you are really in love with this music. Besides that we try to be as active as we can on the social community sites and that definitely helps to build a following.

RSS: Thanks a lot for the interview. Good luck at the LISF. I hope to meet you in Mainz in August. 

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With his Ska band The Braces (1984-1991, 2000-2006) Joachim Uerschels released three albums for Unicorn, Pork Pie and Mad Butcher Records. He lives in Cologne, Germany as a writer and musician. In 2016, he published his solo debut album "Songbook Vol. II" as Joe ScholesJoe Scholes
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