w/ The Hempsteadys, the Snails and Matt MacLeod. $5-$10. 9 p.m., Dec. 15. The El 'n' Gee, 86 Golden St., New London. Also w/ Spring Heeled Jack and Vic Ruggiero. Free, 9 p.m., Dec. 19. BAR, 254 Crown St., New Haven, manicproductions.org
In 1987, Jeff Baker made one of the most crucial decisions of his life. On one hand, he was a 20-year-old who was very adept at computer programming, and those skills had landed him a job offer that put a lot of currency on the table. On the other, he was King Django, a Brooklyn-raised ska/reggae acolyte who had become deeply infatuated with toasting (reggae singing/speaking) as a teenager and was quickly growing acclimated with playing music himself. The programmer and the active musician would not be able to coexist. “I thought about it a lot. At the end of the day, I said, 'You know what? If I take that job, I'm not going to be able to do this anymore,' and I didn't take the job. That was probably the first major fork in that road there,” says the 45-year-old Django, who cribbed his name from the Upsetters' song “Return of Django” and is now based out of New Brunswick, NJ. “I don't really think about it too much, but once in a while, I'm like, 'Damn, I wish I had health insurance.'”
Django came of age right as the 2 Tone ska scene from England was at its most popular. 2 Tone espoused racial integration and diversity through the demographic makeup of acts such as the Specials, the Selecter and the English Beat, and through their lyrics themselves. Django grew up in Canarsie, an area of Brooklyn dedicated to segregated, white-heavy communities made up of Italian, Irish and Jewish folk. When he was 12 and started attending school in Manhattan, taking the train and mingling with people of other backgrounds changed what he knew of the world. “Combine that with the message of 2 Tone and the Specials 'Doesn't Make It Alright' and all [these] heavy social lyrics about racism, that really resonated with me,” he says.
After getting into ska, he branched out into reggae and then other genres. As King Django, he's gone on to amass a sprawling discography as both a singer and a player on trombone, ukulele, harmonica, melodica and other instruments. He's worked solo and within a whole mess of bands. (Among others, Stubborn All-Stars, the Boilers, Skinnerbox and King Django's Roots & Culture Band.) Various music-related side projects dot his resume, too: He published a ska zine called Rude Awakening in New York City for three years starting in 1984, launched a still-active ska/reggae/rocksteady label called Stubborn Records in 1993, and created Version City, a recording studio where he serves as producer/engineer, in 1997.
A key character-establishing moment for Django came with the arrival of 1998's Roots & Culture, a reggae-heavy record whose seed was sown when an associate suggested he make a Christmas record. Since Django was — and still very much is — tied to Judaism through his faith and culture, he wasn't into the idea. As an alternative, the associate encouraged him to work with the idea of “Ska Mitzvah,” which led to a Roots track with that title and the album's heavily Jewish imagery. Lyrics are sung in English and Yiddish alike, and its art features the Lion of Judah jumping through the Star of David. At its core, the record pays tribute to Django's heritage and family: his mother was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany following World War II, his maternal grandfather spent time in three concentration camps and his maternal grandmother had to escape from her village in Hungary. The track “Slaughter” digs particularly deep into his grandfather's suffering, framing its narrative from Django's perspective as a descendant.
The musician has a new album in the rocksteady/early reggae/ska vein called Anywhere I Roam due “any minute now.” Though his fundamental filters have and always will be ska and reggae, Django has made detours into other genres such as R&B, funk, Latin rock, and 1920s and '30s jazz. In a 1999 interview with website In Music We Trust, he enthusiastically discussed getting into trip-hop, drum 'n' bass and jungle music. Nowadays, as a listener, he's into Cuban mambo; as a musician, he plays a crucial role in Bad Luck Dice, a lounge-friendly band who mix influences from R&B, country, swing and the Tin Pan Alley era. “My focus isn't as narrow [compared to when I was younger]. I really enjoy learning different musics and focusing on becoming a better player all the time,” the ambitious Django says, before noting how he was already 19-ish when he started playing. “I feel like I'm a little behind the curve there. I always feel like I'm catching up.”