Three things you should know about ska bands: You will never meet one with a really bad attitude; they have the best names; and they are all about fun—ska is about fun. It’s positive, happy music. It is upbeat by definition and the bass drives the rhythm on the upbeat. This syncopated rhythm gives ska its frantically infectious-at-any-speed bounce.
Ska originated in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The forerunner to reggae has had three distinct waves of popularity so far. A possible fourth wave is on the way if Omaha’s loud and fast ska/punk/hardcore Flavortown Mafia has their say. Flavortown Mafia is like gumbo—a lot of ingredients mixed into one great dish.
I caught up with Flavortown Mafia practicing deep in the woods of Hummel Park, home to drummer and park caretaker Nik Decker. It’s perfect. No neighbors, no noise limit, no worries. A Toots and the Maytals fan from way back, I was into it, and when they gave the ska/punk/hardcore treatment to Mötorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” I was stoked.
Flavortown Mafia credits Guy Fieri, the “Mayor of Flavortown,” along with their restaurant experience and general foodie-ness, with inspiring the name of the band. And their decision to use food-
Carol “Pickle Barrel” RedWing is the saxophonist and “band mom,” according to some members. She began her music career as a third grader, playing flute and clarinet at Jason Lee Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. She said choosing the name was an arduous, democratic process.
“As everyone formed into our band, we threw out about 20 names, slashed the list, and thoughtfully narrowed it down about three times after that,” RedWing says. “If Guy Fieri could be our real life band dad, we’d die happy.”
The vegan mother and graduate of North Omaha High and Haskell Indian Nations University has picked up bass, piano, sax, and music theory over the years. She describes Flavortown Mafia as high-energy ska—punk and heavy. “We’re goofy, but so very #*^@ing serious. I want our fans and listeners to enter a space where they can drop what’s making them sad or stressed and dance it out.”
Guitarist Earl Skow, a multi-instrumentalist from Honey Creek, Iowa, is also their main vocalist and songwriter—his day job is store systems integrator at Whole Foods. Skow plays a wicked guitar, a Fender Special Edition Custom Telecaster FMT HH to be precise. He’s thinking “Eggplant” makes a good nickname, but that will eventually be up to the band. Skow’s been playing music for 15 years, 10 actively touring with bands like Fishbone and Tiny Moving Parts.
“Ska is life. Ska has always been an integral part of my life and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without it,” Skow says. “I started off with a trashy bass I got from a Sol’s for $100, a garbage Hondo II Series. I worked my ass off for it. It’s the cheapest I could find. It was terrible, but what did I know? I was only 13. I practiced nonstop. I locked myself in my room right after school and wouldn’t stop playing until it was time for bed. I worshiped that bass.”
RedWing met Skow a couple years ago at a previous job, where they were both supervisors. “We consistently worked with our backs against a wall. I know how the both of us work under high stress and emergency situations together—I fully trust him. His musicianship is killer and much of our rhythm, strings, and melodies are his brainchild.”
Flavortown Mafia advocates for equality, love, respect for all marginalized groups, fun, and food-eating contests during shows with clever names like “salad tossing” and “weiner chugging.”
“When you’re in a band and have the stage, if you aren’t using it for good, you’re wasting valuable time,” Skow says. “We want people to come to the show expecting the same ska band they are used to hearing and walk away with that shattered. We have fun onstage. If you come looking to have a good time, we will make sure you have the best time possible. One word of advice…come hungry!”
Tim “Tuna” Prawell is a salesman of old-school paper phone books from Niagara Falls, New York. He is also a hockey fan and, according to RedWing, a bass player with a great creative mind. He effortlessly creates fun rhythms and is a positive realist. Being grounded is a good trait for a bassist. Prawell says he learned bass from commercial jingles, sitcom theme songs, and classic video game.
Rounding out the roster are Alex “Schnitz” Keener (“the brains behind the horn section”) on trombone, the aforementioned drummer Nik “Beetnik” Decker, Dani “Doughnut” Dross on trumpet (and Gary Busey fan sites), and Mike “Bean” Manfroi on guitar.
“It doesn’t surprise me the Midwest takes to ska,” Prawell says. “Rock and metal bands are trying way too hard lately. Saying ‘ska band’ stops a conversation in its tracks, and when you can follow it with a one-two punch, that’s made our entry into this scene greasier than a pizza tray.”
The band hopes to play more local shows, but they do have a nine-day tour later this month with details yet to be hammered out. Check out a show, get on the bandwagon early, and come hungry.
This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.