Ska High

Black Square and the Skaflaws give Monterey County three doses of their genre. – Monterey Weekly January 2009

Shaded Protest
SHADED PROTEST: Black Square brings their sound of rebellion about political injustice in Hawaii to back-to-back appearances in Monterey and Salinas on Thursday and Friday.

Hawaii evokes images of clear tropical waters, gently swaying palm trees and gyrating hula dancers. But there’s a lot more going on in those Pacific Islands than sunburned tourists in new Hawaiian print shirts initially realize.

Oahu-based ska, reggae and punk band Black Square, who will play Monterey and Salinas on back-to-back nights this Thursday and Friday, unleash a fiery volcano of evidence to that effect. Following in the footsteps of politically active punk groups like The Clash and Rancid, the six piece addresses Hawaii’s racism, the missteps of the government and militarism.

“The [depth and complexity] here is something that people don’t realize when they come to vacation,” says Black Square singer/guitarist Josh 86.

Black Square’s “December 7th” looks at the state’s internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. Meanwhile, the group’s “Island in the Sun” describes how native islanders came to lose their homeland. “Hawaii as a whole is a sad story for the Hawaiians,” Josh 86 says. “[Islands in the Sun] is basically about the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.”

The band, which features a three-person horn section, also turns its gaze to international issues far removed from the middle of the Pacific on other numbers. Black Square’s “War Machine” includes lyrics that indict America’s foreign policy. Over a mix of rock and reggae, Josh 86 sings: “They say two wrongs don’t make a right/ Then why we sending all these soldiers to kill and fight.”

“That basically talks about Bush and his war in the Middle East,” he says.

Black Square’s latest CD, Onward, includes “War Machine,” along with a cover of the great ’80s ska punk band Operation Ivy’s “Take Warning.” The Hawaiian group’s take on the song is a little more polished than the ragged original but it’s bolstered by Black Square’s horn section. “Collectively, Operation Ivy is one of our most favorite bands,” Josh 86 says.

While Black Square dip heavily into reggae and ska, Josh 86 asserts that the band’s members all have roots in the punk rock and hardcore scenes. Josh 86 still plays with the decade-old Honolulu punk trio The 86 List, while drummer Brian Kim used to be a member of the California hardcore group, Golem. “Everyone moves around a lot onstage,” Josh 86 says. “It’s not like we stand around stoned.”

The musicians transitioned from punk rock into playing more reggae and ska when Black Square formed in 2002.

“It’s also rebel music,” Josh 86 says. “It’s singing about social causes.”

Though the group started out as a three-piece, Black Square added the three horn players in 2007. “It added a fullness that we didn’t have before,” Josh 86 says.

He adds that the band moved more towards a traditional ska sound on 2008’s Onward. He says it’s a result of the members of Black Square getting more and more into classic ska/reggae acts including Desmond Dekker and Toots & the Maytals. According to Josh 86, Onward’s “Chinatown” draws from early ska’s R&B and soul sounds.

Though Santa Cruz’s The Skaflaws would seem to be a traditional ska group, vocalist Renee Gonzalez says the band does everything from Ween covers to originals that boomerang between hard rock, punk and dub reggae. “I don’t think we ever really considered ourselves a ska band, because we never had horns,” Gonzalez says.

The group began back in 2005 with a group of friends jamming on some Sublime songs. Just two years later, The Skaflaws were playing on the main stage of The Catalyst in a battle of the bands competition. Since then, The Skaflaws have performed in the Santa Cruz venue while opening for national acts Eek-A-Mouse and The English Beat. “Now, it’s kind of like home when we play there,” Gonzalez says.

The Skaflaws stand out from other ska/rock/reggae hybrids due to the presence of a female vocalist in a male-dominated genre and the music’s frequently unexpected detours. “Escape” goes from jogging-in-place ska to slowed-down, dubbed-out reggae. “Man In Gold” is surf rock riding a wave of reggae with a sprinkling of rapped rhymes from someone called the Almighty Aziz, while “Rhythm of the Band” evokes Sublime before going into a blustery hard rock direction.

The Skaflaw’s best song, though, is a cover of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” renamed “Dub is a Battlefield.” The genius remake replaces the rock of the original with a reggae rhythm and echoey vocals. Gonzalez loves Benatar and believes she has something in common with the female rocker who had a string of hits in the ’80s (and appeared locally last year).

“I’ve had a hard time finding a female vocalist, who had a male band,” she says.

BLACK SQUARE plays 9:30pm Thursday, Jan. 15, at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $7. 373-5483.

BLACK SQUARE plays 9pm Friday, Jan. 16, at Giovane’s, 348 San Juan Grade Rd., Salinas. $5. 444-6717.

THE SKAFLAWS play 8pm Friday, Jan. 16, at Wave Street Studios, 774 Wave St., Monterey. $15/general; $10/students. 655-2010.

Dr. Pete’s San Francisco Blog January 2009

So I sauntered (note the sarcasm) down to San Francisco’s North Beach on Saturday night to do some band hunting and came across this pearl hailing from California’s neighbor to the west. For you geography neophytes…that’s Hawaii. It has been awhile since I have seen a new band that takes the stage…controls it, masters the crowd and has excellent musicianship and presence. They had the Grant and Green packed, dancing and drinking away any of the depression people are feeling about the economy, life etc. Who is this magical band you ask? Well, it is Black Square. This ska-roots-rock-punk band recently completed a seemingly successful California tour and probably just landed back in the islands. Their horn section is incredible and everything you want from a quality ska band, lead singer Josh86 combines excellent vocals with a good driving guitar, and their rhythm section of Brian Kim on drum and Kat on bass provide more than an immovable foundation. I would strongly suggest seeing these guys live – which may be hard unless you live in Hawaii. However, at the very least give them a listen at and then think about adding their music via iTunes or CDBaby. I give major kudos to Black Square and they get one of my biggest endorsements in a long time. Wish I could write more…but my back teeth are floatin’ and I gotta go. Peace, Dr. Pete

Honolulu Advertiser October 23, 2007
Black Square by Kasey Leavitt

Saved in (Music, The Pulse) by Carlos Urreta on October 23, 2007 at 11:21 pm

Black Square is one band who really gets it. All six members of Black Square genuinely love their music, their art, and their fans.

Serpico, their manager, who receives no pay for her work, has been with the band for just over a year. In fact, when all the costs (such as instruments, transportation costs, and sound equipment) are factored in, no one in the band makes any money. When asked why she would devote so much time and energy into a project for free, she responded “I started doing this because I believed in their talent and their message. I’ve been with them over a year now and they feel like family. They are so great it is ridiculous…I am constantly impressed with how much they give of themselves. They work like dogs so they can play some amazing music and nobody makes a cent off of it.”

Their pure musical and songwriting talent was abundantly evident at a September 21st gig at Anna Banana’s. The night felt more like a party with 300 of Black Square’s closest friends than an actual show. The room was stifling hot as people, dripping in sweat, crowded together shoulder to shoulder at the foot of the stage, just to be that much closer to the music. There wasn’t a static person in the place. Every person was dancing, jumping, or bobbing, moved by the upbeat sounds of this power reggae group.

Kalei Kam, a graduate student at HPU who attended the show exclaimed “I loved their sound, and the instruments being used. The band members were so interactive with the crowd and the crowd reacted so awesomely! My favorite part was when two of the band members came into the audience still playing their instruments and dancing with the audience; the audience went absolutely wild! Love them!”

Not many bands can captivate an audience the way Black Square can. Josh86, the band’s lead singer, attributes that energy to the band “just having fun,” their love for their art, and most importantly, their love for people who turn out to see them. Decidedly humble despite the band’s growing popularity, Josh86 says that Black Square’s burgeoning success is due largely to other local bands, and that they have a “very strong love and appreciation for the local music scene, and all the bands who are a part of it.” He adds “we wouldn’t have the foundation that we do if it weren’t for those bands.”

While their performances are lively and fun, the message in their music is usually rather serious. You won’t hear any sappy sonnets, or songs of unrequited love from Black Square. This band writes songs that reflect their perspective on current issues such as racism, war, the situation in Iraq, and capitalism. Black Square feels a steadfast responsibility to sing about truly important issues to encourage people to talk about our social climate. The lyrics they write express their feelings on the topics, then these local boys, who hail from all over the island, set those lyrics to music that blends traditional genres like rock and reggae, with newer ones like punk rock and ska.

Listing The Dead Kennedys, Bob Marley, and the Clash as among their many musical influences, Black Square has a truly unique sound. Just as unique is how they chose their name. Inspired by Kazimir Malevich’s infamous Black Square painting, which challenged people to consider art differently and more objectively, the band’s moniker reflects their dispute with society’s traditional notion of art. In the same way that they don’t define art as any one particular medium, they don’t define their music as any one particular style.

The members of Black Square, include lead singer Josh86, 25; drummer Little Brian Kim, 28; bassist Nick Danger, 24; alto saxophonist TR, 26; trombone player G-Bone, 20; and tenor saxophonist Babyface, who’s just 17 years old. Their last album, One Glass of Water, sold over 1,000 copies in less than six months, despite limited promotion and no local radio play. They have toured the mainland twice, and have opened for the nationally popular, but locally-grown, Pepper.

Black Square lights up the local music scene with their energy, their passion, and their message. You can check them out and find their next performance at Pick up their latest CD at Jelly’s, Hungry Ear, Sure Shock Café, or online at You can also buy their music on iTunes. Be on the look out for their next album, tentatively scheduled to drop in February. You can also check out the band at a free performance this Friday, October 26 from 1:00pm to 3:00pm on Fort Street Mall


When one thinks of Hawaii, it’s easy to concentrate on stereotypes; surfing, hula girls, etc. However, Hawaii and a burgeoning ska/punk scene have never been synonymous. Punk/reggae sextet Black Square are looking to change that, and SKRATCH recently caught up with guitarist/vocalist Josh 86 to discuss just how they plan on it.

Black Square is Josh 86 (vocals/guitars), Nick Danger (bass/vocals), Brian Kim (drums), T.R. (alto & baritone saxophone/vocals), G-Bone (trombone), and Babyface McEvans (tenor saxophone.)

SKRATCH MAGAZINE: Is there any significance behind the name of the band?
JOSH 86: The band name comes from the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich who, in 1915, painted a black square on a white foreground which became his most famous piece of work. [The] appropriately titled “Black Square” was classified as part of the Supremacist movement, a theory in which the material matter of art or objectivity was without value and the true value in a work of art was in the feeling it expressed or the feeling it provoked without specifically leading the viewer to specific object-based reflection.

SKRATCH: From a lyrical standpoint, what do you think is the most powerful song in the band’s catalogue?
JOSH: “One Glass of Water,” the title track of our most recent album, has an urgent and important message calling on people to conserve, replant, and replenish our earth as we have been raping and taking from it for too long now. The song’s verses are self-reflective while the bridges and chorus call for the listener to remember the past and to be active in shaping the future of our planet.

SKRATCH: What are some of your goals for 2008?
JOSH: Release our third full-length album, ONWARD. Tour Japan and the west coast again.

SKRATCH: Who are some of the artists that made you want to do this?
JOSH: Local bands like Go Jimmy Go and The Hell Caminos have stepped up and embarked on cross continental tours of the mainland, as well as tours in Asia and Europe. This has been influential in our traveling goals. Musically speaking, Joe Strummer has been my biggest influence. From the Clash to his work with the Mescaleros, he is my most admired songwriter with his political and insightful lyrics along with combinations of pop, punk, and reggae.

SKRATCH: Do think the Internet has been more of a benefit or a detriment to the music industry?
JOSH: From the financial perspective, I’d say a detriment. Bands have gained much better exposure possibilities though, and I believe that is more valuable than the dollar. Artists have always struggled financially, it seems. Those who benefit off the sales of art are almost never the ones creating it. I’d much rather have a million people be listening to our music than making a million dollars off it.

SKRATCH: What would your “dream tour” look like?
JOSH: I’d love to tour South America. I’d like to have everything with us we’d need to play anywhere. All the generators, lights, etc. Playing music to people that have never heard anything like us is exciting to me. I wouldn’t even want to hit the big cities. I can just imagine the adventure it would be. Yeah, I’d want to play the Amazon.

SKRATCH: If you weren’t involved with music, what would you be doing?
JOSH: I run a non-profit organization that sets up all ages shows in the Islands. I’d love to focus more on that and establish our own venue and art space for bands to play, and to have art and music classes. This type of work involving the youth and giving them tools to express or empower themselves is very rewarding. To encourage and cultivate more music and art in Hawaii’s youth culture is noble work I’d like to be a part of.

SKRATCH: What is one of your least favorite things about being a musician?
JOSH: Traveling. As much as it is always an awesome adventure, and memorable, and one of the best parts of being a musician, I get homesick really easy. Growing up on an island makes you never want to leave, or makes you want to get the hell out as soon as you can. I love Hawaii; it is my home, so whenever I leave, I miss it in a way that makes me feel like part of myself has been taken away. A lot of people talk about this feeling when they lose a lover. I feel that way when I lose Hawaii.

SKRATCH: Where do you see the band in five years?
JOSH: I would expect our live show turnouts to grow immensely. I would expect to have visited many cities and countries with fans across the world. Most importantly, I would expect our music to improve greatly.

SKRATCH: How bout ten years?
JOSH: Hopefully living off our art somehow. But who knows, maybe the Internet will have swallowed the music industry by then. In that case, we will instead [have] made over a million fans, and everyone in the Amazon will know our name.

One Glass of Water
808 Scene Zine, Issue 20
One Glass of Water

Black Square’s “One Glass of Water” has been a fixture in my playlist for months! Every track is funky, fresh, loud, and best of all, musical. The band’s music is a striking combination of ska, punk and other influences both heavier and softer. One of the disc’s more popular tracks, “We Believe” is a slow and steady 3 minute party that will make you want to skank, even if you don’t know what that means! There is great story telling throughout the album, such as the ska/punk romp “Breaking Glass,” which is third party account of a fight that travels “all across Makiki to that little Sure Shot place…” The songs can also take a much more serious form, touching on numerous world issues, invoking personal reactions from listeners. “December 7th” is a poignant critique of the treatment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII.

“One Glass of Water,” the title track, is a heart-felt anthem encouraging progressive thought about our everyday treatment of the earth. Tying all of it together is an AWESOME horns section that blasts out of your stereo due (thanks/as a result of) to the very high production values that the CD is glazed in. Most importantly, the band sounds like they had a blast recording the album, with lots of neat stereo tricks, boisterous harmonies, and a sort-of personal “good-bye and thank you” from each member of the band during the last track on the album. Overall, there is not a weak song on the album, and it deserves your attention. “One Glass of Water” will make you want to come out and see Black Square live to see if the band is as full of character and infused with groove as they are on the album. Trust me, they are!

You can buy “One Glass of Water” in many places, including

Honolulu Weekly, June, 2008
Black Square – Onward Cory Asato

Post WWII, Jamaicans acquired American R&B via radio, late 70’s English punks meshed Jamaican ska, years later, Americans jumped right in on the skank. Three waves, all voiced with messages of social outcasts, political movements, racial unity, and of course, booze. With Onward, Black Square is kicking off the “ska is dead” boots while garbing their fourth wave protest gauntlets. And no, not your hippie hugs, dance drunk punch love, rude boy.

There’s something to adore about DIY bands that get it right, and Black Square gets it. Their strength is in their live sets, and Onward is a testament to just that. Opening track “The Ego” fills the air with an energetic synergy of groove rhythms, vocal chants, and jazzy blasts of brass all surprisingly swelled and hushed exactly where they need to be. In our digital recording age of, “Dr. sync my vocals in key,” cut-and-paste, and way, way too much reverb abuse (insert pop star here), over-production is a crutch and here-by acclaimed irritation. Gladly, Onward is a well-refined recording, yet remains raw.

Bluntly put, socialistic and political opinions in music is a hard craft to master. First things first, the song better be damn good for you to preach. Secondly, it’s quite tiring, Prince. Mid-album, Onward gets preachy. Obama or not, when Josh 86 warbles, “Where are all the protesters?” (“To Work On”), with a cringe an answer popped up—Portland. “War Machine” opens with a modern rock break down, followed by an apology, “I don’t mean to preach,” then goes on to fulfill that promise, cheekily. Aside from the orated inverted flags, the brass keeps howling along, guitars singing their skank, and rhythm section pounding its live fervor.

Reggae-bound, sure-to-be-radio-hit, “Underground” is where we see the band relax, kick back, and give an ode to their surroundings. Album closer “Chinatown” reminisces of the band’s beginnings, underage fan base, and like “The Ego,” humility. Hard touring, three albums and six years in, at the top of their game, Black Square shows why they’re on the better bands of the island list. While giving us nothing entirely new, Onward still hands a well crafted, upbeat, familiar feel, and Hawaii likes familiar.

Island Mele, John Berger Honolulu Star Bulletin

The effectiveness of music as a conduit for educational messages and encouraging political awareness is immediately evident in this powerful new album by Black Square. A majority of the songs on this all-original album have the catchy uptempo rhythms and blaring horn section punches of mainstream party-hearty ska, but the group’s resident lyricist, Josh 86, writes primarily about topics more cerebral than sex, drinking and the pursuit of women. There’s even a song here that speaks out against the popular playa attitude of treating all women as a “one-night thrill.”

Other songs denounce the glorification of random violence in Hawaii’s local “moke” culture, racism in general, eco-cide, the concept of “freedom as a by-product” and America’s relative lack of interest in addressing the many problems that are devastating sub-Saharan Africa.

“December 7th,” the only song Josh 86 didn’t write, turns out to be an indictment of the shameful imprisonment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

There’s also some lighter material — autobiographical, perhaps — about swaying “to the sound of Chris Murray on guitar,” leaving messages on answering machines and the daily grind of life in modern America.

Songs that are written to deliver political or religious messages are often painfully didactic and musically bland, but Black Square rocks throughout. Whatever the topic may be, relatively light or politically charged, island ska fans will find Black Square worth hearing.

2008-10-02 Arts & Entertainment

Arts & Entertainment

Hip to be Square

Black Square brings politically charged ska to Maui

by Kate Bradshaw

October 02, 2008
One can use seafaring as a metaphor for almost anything. Yet no modern pursuit seems to parallel the exploits of salt-soaked explorers (imperialistic and psychotic as some of them might have been) as that of art, and specifically music. While early navigators had the stars, primitive maps and perhaps a compass to guide them, musicians have scales, instruments, form and inspiration. And while seafarers had deadly storms and ornery sea creatures to contend with, musicians have economic and cultural climates that often do not favor those who have the guts to be original.

Honolulu-based punk/ska/reggae band Black Square, which will play two shows on Maui this weekend, is aware of this parallel; their latest album Onward features a tattoo-like rendering of a 19th century clipper ship.

“The clipper sailing ship to us represented a metaphor for new discovery and a swift and direct route to something new,” says Josh86, the band’s guitar player and lead vocalist.

Black Square formed in 2002 as a three-piece with Josh86 on guitar and lead vocals, Nick Danger on bass and Little Brian Kim on drums. They were essentially hardcore, but they borrowed elements of reggae and punk rock and later added a horn section. The band derived its name from Russian painter Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 painting of a black square and Suprematism, the art movement it inspired. Suprematism’s thrust is that a work of art is less important than the response it invokes in the observer. Josh86 relates the obscurity, uniqueness and ambiguity of Malevich’s black square to the band’s style.

“We hope for our music to be something that people can listen to without needing to categorize into a genre,” Josh 86 said. “We want them to hear our message and respond, react and be affected by it.”

Nearly every track on Black Square’s third release harbors a message of social consciousness, though each holds down a different front.

“Change,” Onward’s eighth track, for example, asks, “where the punk rockers/where the protesters/where the rebelers and where the song singers?” Incredibly melodic and assisted by harmony as well as call and response, the song urges the listener to talk politics, write a poem, do something other than pretend thinking is uncool.

Track one, titled “Ego,” looks inward: “I lie to myself to pick up the slack/I’m afraid of who I’ll be when no one is around.” While the band’s lyrics are brutally honest—even when they get surreal as they do in sea-shantyesque “Virgin Glance”—the message and instrumentation are wholly optimistic and bright.

Even the tunes that unfold in a minor key are upbeat. When Josh86 sings about crack dealers and hookers in “China Town,” the sunny walking bass line and reggae-inspired guitar upstrokes make you want to sway.

Black Square has come to Maui four times in the past two years; this time they make the trip with new bass player Kat. Haiku-based Order of the White Rose will open the show with a set of hard-hitting, political punk rock.

Let’s all raise our glasses, brimming with rum, to the hope that Maui will prove a safe harbor for Black Square as they venture onward. MTW