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Ska's Lost Cause

What do Jamaica's "freedom sound" and Chicago's third-wave ska scene have in common? Not much.

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By J.R. Jones

The Ska Against Racism show that sold out the Riviera Theatre about two months ago might have been called preaching to the choir, except that there was precious little preaching going on. If the vox populi of concert T-shirts was any indication, most of the kids in the audience had come to see Capitol recording artists Less Than Jake--hardly a political act. The all-white band from Gainesville, Florida, showered the mostly white audience with toilet paper, sang the theme song to Laverne & Shirley, and sent its mascot, a circus clown of uncertain ethnicity, to surf the crowd on a rubber raft. Speaking before the show, organizer Mike Park conceded that the party had overwhelmed the politics and fretted that when the eight-band, six-week package tour ended on May 9, the antiracist organizations it had pledged to support would be lucky to divide $23,000. "God, I hate to say this," said Blue Meanies singer Billy Spunke, whose band performed that night, "but it was almost like the racism part of this tour was just a marketing tool."

Certainly that wasn't Park's intention. But more than anything, the tour seemed to signify the ultimate bleaching of ska for a middle-class suburban audience. The brisk, syncopated pop style--a brassy antecedent to reggae--emerged from Jamaica in the late 50s and early 60s, when Caribbean mento collided with New Orleans swing and R & B. The Jamaican record industry had begun to flower as the island shook off the heavy arm of British colonialism, and the "freedom sound" of ska became a symbol of independence and racial pride. In the late 70s, as Jamaican pop moved on, ska emigrated to England, where tensions between blacks and whites were coming to a boil. Interracial bands on London's 2-Tone label, like the Specials, Selecter, and the English Beat, wired ska to the herky-jerky rhythms of new wave and used it to preach tolerance. In the U.S. the 2-Tone bands enjoyed only fleeting popularity, but by the mid-80s cult audiences in New York, LA, and the industrial cities of the midwest were nurturing yet another incarnation of ska. In the midwest especially, the soulful flavor of the Jamaican original was abandoned for the fury of hardcore punk; the players were predominantly white, with a sprinkling of Latinos and Asians. Now Chicago has one of the most active ska scenes in the country, but also one of the most homogeneous.

Ever since southern jazz musicians began migrating to Chicago in the teens and 20s, the city has been a commercial clearinghouse for black music--not just jazz but blues, gospel, soul, and more recently the African and Caribbean styles marketed as "world music." Jazz may have been born in New Orleans, but it grew up in Chicago, where it was recorded and disseminated to the rest of the country--even as the city's live venues remained strictly segregated. In the last 30 years the racial lines dividing Chicago's music audience have begun to blur in places, but mostly the cultural apartheid endures. Often the distinctions have less to do with rhythm than real estate: just as a city street can divide two races, a Brazilian jazz band playing the Green Mill can draw a white crowd while a Belizean pop band playing the Equator Club a block south draws blacks and Latinos. Chicago's ska scene sustains almost weekly shows, but they're always in Wrigleyville, Wicker Park, or the white suburbs. Chuck Wren, the tireless Japanese-American who runs the Jump Up! ska label, says his records don't sell on the west side, and on the south side they only sell in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago. And the kids who flocked to Ska Against Racism probably never even knew about the Jamaican dancehall programs that used to be held a few doors down from the Riviera, at the former Uptown Cultural Center.

A month before Ska Against Racism, I went to see Jamaica's reunited Skatalites play a sold-out show at Metro. For fans of traditional ska the band is nothing short of the Holy Grail: the original lineup, formed in 1963, recorded classic instrumentals like "Guns of Navarone" and accompanied numerous vocalists at Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's famous Studio One before disintegrating in '65. Skapone and the Adjusters, two of the more traditional acts on Jump Up! (and the only ones with black singers) opened the show, and Wren deejayed between sets, spinning 45s from his formidable collection of vintage ska. The fans I spoke to, many of them decked out in the thin-lapeled suits and porkpie hats of the 2-Tone era, had come from as far south as Springfield and as far north as Kenosha, and the reception they gave the Skatalites was euphoric. Yet I couldn't help noticing that there were more black faces onstage than in the audience: here and there a clean-cut black student moved to the music, and in the center of the crowd a black man in a dashiki stared rapturously at the band while his dreadlocked date cast panicky glances at the skanking white boys all around her.

The first wave of ska had little impact on white Chicago. Reggae caught on much earlier, largely because rock acts like the Police, the Clash, and Eric Clapton dabbled in it. Charley "Organaire" Cameron, a Jamaican singer and harmonica player who moved to Chicago in 1976 after recording with Bob Marley, Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, and Toots & the Maytals, remembers only two bands playing ska around 1980: the Jamaican-American band Heavy Manners, which gigged heavily at the roots clubs on the north side, and the Blue Riddim Band, from Kansas City. When John Calahan, bassist for Skapone, moved to Park Ridge in 1983, there were three: Heavy Manners, Rude Guest, and the Uptown Rulers, who came up from Bloomington. In high school Calahan started the Ska-Tones, who played the all-ages mod shows at Hemenway Church in Evanston and the West End club at Armitage and Racine. In those days, he recalls, few people were specifically interested in ska: "They either didn't know what the hell it was, or it was passe because the Specials had already done it."

Calahan says ska's audience here was as white then as it is now, and admits that for him and his friends the political message of the 2-Tone bands they loved was secondary to the beat. "It was just a passing interest to think, 'Well, yeah, there's racial tension right now in England,'" he says. "Where I lived [in California] there wasn't much of that; it was primarily white and Mexican, and they went around in different groups." In Chicago the north side had reggae clubs, most notably the Wild Hare, near Wrigley Field. But they catered to Rastafarians and collegiate potheads in search of authentic Jamaican sounds, and white bands from the suburbs were decidedly inauthentic.

So like many an oddball genre before it, ska fell in with the hardcore underground. State of Emergency, Calahan's next band, included brass, multiple singers, and a keyboard player, yet it opened for punk acts like Screeching Weasel. The punk audiences "were polite to us," he says. "I don't know that they necessarily liked us, or they didn't want to show that they could like us. A few people really seemed to get into it and a few just stood there with their arms crossed." By that time Heavy Manners was long gone, but other bands around the midwest were keeping the 2-Tone flame alive--in Cincinnati, Erector Set; in Kalamazoo, the Slackers; in Milwaukee, International Jet Set. (They and numerous others are anthologized on the Jump Up! CD Death of an American Ska-thic: Midwest Ska's Forgotten Past.) For the most part they played to punk audiences and released their music on cassettes and seven-inch vinyl.

Calahan began to sense a sea change in 1990, after State of Emergency opened for Gangster Fun, a Detroit ska band that had signed to a British label. "They'd been around since '88," he says. "And we saw that people in other cities knew what this stuff was, that it wasn't just something that landed from England and disappeared." The third wave was heading for shore, and when it hit it was faster and dirtier than its predecessor, with the brass frequently playing in octaves instead of close harmony. For most of the younger musicians, ska was 2-Tone--part of the punk and new-wave explosion--and they were more likely to follow it into hardcore or even speed metal than back to Jamaica. "In every ska band formed after 1985, there's one guy that loves death metal," notes Alyse Matlak, whose Clubhouse record shop, next to Metro, does a brisk business in ska. "The Suicide Machines, Hot Stove Jimmy--even [first-wave revivalists] Deals Gone Bad, half the guys in there used to be metalheads." The bastard form of ska most of the third-wave bands played--called "ska-punk" or "ska-core"--obliterated any last traces of the first wave's soulful sound.

Chuck Wren considers ska-core a midwestern phenomenon, pioneered by bands like Slapstick, Mustard Plug, the Skolars, and the Suicide Machines. "Now it's a big southern California flag," he says, "but a lot of it started here. I think the reason is because there was no scene saying it was wrong. We were all so appreciative of bands that played in the midwest and played ska, the music we loved, that we'd take whatever they offered. But on the east coast and some parts of the west coast, it was like, that isn't proper ska, you can't do it that way. And we're like, whatever influenced you to start playing music is good enough for us. If your big influence is the Descendents, cool."

But clearly race was a factor as well. The old-school Toasters, who spearheaded the third wave in New York, have always had interracial lineups. The west-coast scene got a kick start with the commercial popularity of Fishbone, an all-black band from South Central LA, and in the last decade a heavy Latin influence has crept in. But most midwestern bands are all white, and a ska-core act like the Blue Meanies is just as likely to draw on European ethnic music, like polka or klezmer, as on African or Caribbean sounds. Wren may be the biggest ska booster in Chicago, but even he admits the music has little to offer the city's black youth these days. "Hip-hop is so much a part of their culture," he says, "because it speaks to them, speaks to their issues and what they deal with growing up. There's not many ska bands that speak to the African-American community right now."

When ska-punk finally broke into the commercial mainstream, it did so from sunny California, where it was nurtured by the LA recording industry. Rancid, No Doubt, Goldfinger, and Reel Big Fish all scored radio hits, and the east coast weighed in with Less Than Jake and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Last year an article in Billboard christened ska the latest trend in modern rock radio. "It was fresh," says Bill Gamble, former program director of Q101. "Remember that predating that it was nothing but walls of guitars. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bush, to some extent the first Smashing Pumpkins releases--just walls of sound. Then all of a sudden here's something poppy and fun. It was the first real breath of fun in alternative music, which had been fairly dark and plodding and moody." With this marketing push came an eager new audience for third-wave ska, comprising white teens and preteens from the suburbs. Certainly this is nothing new in the record business: for most of this century artists from Paul Whiteman to Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones have raked in the bucks by putting a white face on black music. But rarely has the co-opted form been such an explicitly political one. How many junior-high kids bouncing around to Less Than Jake will follow the thread all the way back to Studio One?

From the myopic perspective of the north side, Chicago looks more integrated than it was when 2-Tone arrived. "I can still remember the first day when they bused in kids," says the Blue Meanies' Billy Spunke, who grew up near Addison and Central. "I was probably in second or third grade, and I can remember the city buses pulling up and a mass of black kids walking across the field, and how the neighborhood federation talked about 'the niggers' coming into the neighborhood and property values dropping. But I think since then it's changed. I live in Uptown right now, and my neighborhood is integrated. Even my building: there's a black woman that lives below me, I live with a couple of women and a Mexican, and above me is a homosexual couple. So I think Chicago isn't as intense as it used to be."

But outsiders come away with a very different picture. Daraka Larimore, the black University of Chicago grad student who fronts the Adjusters, is a first-generation Jamaican-American; his father worked as a union organizer before emigrating to New York in the late 60s and eventually becoming a civil rights attorney. "Just walking around Hyde Park and dealing with black folks who worked and lived here, my dad was like, 'Everyone is so mean!' He lives in Los Angeles and grew up in Jamaica, and he feels like people here are more pissed than any other place he's been. Black people in the south obviously have had tremendously oppressive political and economic conditions thrust on them, but they've had these glimmers of hope, these moments of gaining power through the civil rights movement. In Chicago, except for Harold Washington's election, there's nothing."

No dance groove is ever going to bridge the gap between these two Chicagos. Jeremy Freeman (who runs the local Scratchie label with Smashing Pumpkins James Iha and D'Arcy) spins dub reggae and dancehall, among other things, every Sunday at the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village. When he came to Chicago from New York in 1995, he says, he was immediately taken aback by the balkanization of the music scene. "You have a lot of cultures in Chicago that do completely separate things, and there seems to be no crossover," says Freeman, who is white. "You're here in Wicker Park, where there's a strong Hispanic community, a strong black community, and a strong indie-rock community. There's such an opportunity for everyone to come together, but I just haven't seen that happen yet. In New York you can glance through the club section and every night at some bar on the Lower East Side there's Latin music nights that are considered a trendy, good music night that everyone will go see. That's not something that exists here."

The audience for Jamaican-derived music in Chicago breaks down into three discrete segments: ska, reggae, and dancehall. By the late 60s Jamaican ska had mutated into reggae, which was slower and deemphasized horns in favor of highly syncopated guitar. Historically the line between ska and reggae hasn't always been clear--Bob Marley, the patron saint of reggae, began his career as a ska artist in the mid-60s--but in Chicago it's unmistakable. Reggae acts almost never share bills with third-wave ska bands, and white ska bands almost never play reggae clubs. Larimore says he's tried without success to book the Adjusters at Wild Hare: "When you call a reggae club and say you've got a ska band--especially if you talk white like I do--they're gonna think you're Let's Go Bowling, and they're like, um, no. A band like Hepcat or us, we could do real well on a reggae bill. Whenever we've played a show and there happen to be Jamaicans in the audience, they're like, 'Whoa, that was fantastic. Exactly the stuff I was listening to as a kid.' I think you can do it, but it's gonna take people in the reggae scene opening their minds a little bit, and people in the ska scene playing music."

Ironically the white patrons who've come to dominate north-side reggae clubs may be the least receptive to third-wave ska. "I think their regular reggae audience might be like, 'What are you doing? This is a reggae club,'" says Wren. "They'll do old ska acts. Derrick Morgan, when he came to town, played the Wild Hare. Skatalites have played the Wild Hare. Desmond Dekker is about to do another tour, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up at the Wild Hare. The ones that established the sound back in the 60s, they respect them. In some ways I think they fight really hard to make sure those artists play at their club." Ashenafi Belay, co-owner of the Wild Hare, says that since the ska craze hit, his biggest headache is trying to land Jamaican artists who would've been glad to play at Wild Hare a few years ago but are now being courted by Metro and House of Blues. Recently he booked the Invaders, a third-wave ska band from Milwaukee, and was pleased with the response. But few local ska bands even think to approach him.

Dancehall, the relative newcomer, came out of Jamaica in the mid-80s. Influenced by American hip-hop, dancehall was less song oriented; it catered more to the dance floor with electronic effects and vocal improvisation and showcased the skills of a new class of DJ-producers. Union Hall, at 93rd and South Chicago, hosts the largest live dancehall shows here, though clubs like Biddy Mulligan's in Rogers Park, the South Loop's Cotton Club, and Sugar Ray's Hall in Maywood have weekly dancehall nights. Like ska in its early days, the local dancehall scene is driven by a small network of entrepreneurs who spin vinyl on portable sound systems. Chuckie Ferguson, owner of the Conquering Lion record shop, near 79th and Cottage Grove, does business as DUB (Development Unification of Brotherhood), and Peter Tallas, who runs Tallas Music, near 79th and Jeffery, also works dances as a sideline to his retail business. Both men wish dancehall could find a strong venue like one of the north side's reggae clubs; dancehall parties often hover below the radar, in school gyms and Holiday Inn ballrooms or on boat cruises.

In Chicago the audience for dancehall is as black as the ska audience is white. According to Tallas and Ferguson, a few whites and Latinos come to shows and dances, but they're outnumbered by Africans and Carribeans--and by African-Americans who see dancehall as a Jamaican brother to hip-hop. (Newer artists like Luciano, Beenie Man, and Sizzla pack a political message that evidently strikes closer to home than anything third-wave ska can drum up.) Clare Barrett, whose Roadmaster International shop on Howard has been selling Jamaican records for 15 years, says the crowd at Biddy Mulligan's is "Caribbean people--Belize, Haiti, Jamaica--and then we have a few whites and Hispanics." Her shop draws some whites, most of them Northwestern students, but it's a different story for Tallas Music and Conquering Lion. Ferguson says he has fewer white customers now than when he opened in 1980; north-side record chains have caught on to Afro-Carribean music and siphoned them off. "People are afraid to come down here because they think it's dangerous," says Ferguson, whose shop is in a quiet middle-class neighborhood about a mile east of the New Regal Theatre. "Even Jamaicans are afraid sometimes, because they hear about crime and they think something will happen to them if they come down."

One sound system that never has trouble drawing whites is 52 Flavors, Freeman's gig at the Empty Bottle; the crowd may be more diverse than on other nights at the rock club, but it's still predominantly north-side hipster. Freeman doesn't see dancehall catching on with white Chicago at large. "If you go to see any real dancehall shows in Chicago, it's an all-black audience, and there's no white people at all," he says. "When we do our thing on Sundays, which is drum 'n' bass and dub and dancehall, then you get this kind of indie-rock audience. They'll talk about music that's progressive, but when you have these great forms like dancehall, they won't go out to see it."

If ska has another two-tone phase in its future, it's more likely to be brown and white. Matlak says Latin ska is beginning to sell at the Clubhouse: "What you have to bear in mind is, it's really only become readily available here the last two years or so, and I think it's ultimately just gonna trickle down. I think you're gonna see a lot more of a Latin influence as time goes on. I know what band members buy and what they request, and it's definitely got a Latin flavor." One of the most captivating recent releases on the Toasters' Moon Ska label collects Brazilian ska bands. And lately Freeman has begun adding salsa and Latin jazz to his mix at the Empty Bottle, hoping to lure in some of the Hispanic clubbers who dance almost nightly at Tania's and the Tropicana de Cache in Bucktown.

"You see a lot of Hispanics come to shows," Wren says. "Part of the reason is because so many rock bands who sing in Spanish--rock en espa–ol bands--have incorporated ska into their music and have done so for years. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have straight-up ska songs. I think there's almost better awareness now in rock en espa–ol for what ska music was than there was in the American scene before ska had some hits over the past year and a half."

But for the most part Latin ska--"salska," as some tag-happy critics have taken to calling it--has yet to infiltrate the Chicago ska scene. Last summer, says Spunke, Chuck Wren brought a member of the Mexico City salska band Maldita Vecindad to a Blue Meanies show at Metro. Maldita Vecindad, whose second album is known back home as "the Mexican Sgt. Pepper's," packed their own show at another venue that weekend. But aside from Wren, who'd leave a bride at the altar to catch a ska show, "no one in the third-wave ska scene even knew about it," Spunke admits. "They had no idea. No one had any clue."

In the weeks before Ska Against Racism arrived I asked local ska fans what they thought of the idea, and while the level of cynicism varied, all agreed that the antiracist message of the 2-Tone era had long since evaporated from the music. Wren, who was doing local radio and street promotion for the tour, said he didn't think it would change the world but that on balance it was a good thing: "I think part of the reason for the tour is to bring some awareness and to hand out literature from the different organizations and to raise money as well. Most of the ska crowds in Chicago are very white, and it's kind of irreversible, unfortunately. But the people who go are the most open-minded people in the world."

The Adjusters' Larimore was more skeptical. "Not talking about racism as a system, or racism as something that you should be actively fighting against, but talking about it like, 'You shouldn't be mean to black people,' is just ridiculous," he said. "It's like the 2-Tone take on racism, which in the 2-Tone context meant something completely different. There you had a racially diverse scene where people were beating each other up, so going out and saying 'Hey, don't beat each other up' was a progressive thing and part of the more socialist agenda of the people behind 2-Tone. But going to a ska crowd that's 99 percent white and pretty solidly liberal--especially on race issues--and saying 'Don't beat up black people' is like going out and saying 'Don't molest children.' They might as well do Ska Against Incest."

The eight bands on the roster for Chicago included the Japanese band Kemuri, the Christian band Five Iron Frenzy, Mustard Plug, the Blue Meanies, the Toasters, and Less Than Jake. The first set was scheduled to begin at 5 PM, but when I got to the Riviera at 3:30 there were already close to 100 kids lined up outside the theater. Unlike the 2-Tone purists at the Skatalites show, most dressed in sneakers, baggy jeans, and band T-shirts. Inside the hall on the ground floor, the Anti-Racism Action network had set up a booth, distributing literature and selling T-shirts, but it was no busier than the tables where kids plunked down cash for CDs and other band paraphernalia.

Backstage I asked organizer Mike Park--a member of the early third-wave band Skankin' Pickle and the founder of San Francisco's Asian Man ska label--if he thought the high schoolers listening to ska on Q101 understood its racial origins. "I don't think so," he replied. "What we're hoping with this tour is to maybe educate about the history of ska, but also hit an age group that's really impressionable. I know a lot of these kids are just here to see the music, but if we can get a small percentage to really get involved, become proactive, and volunteer their time with youth centers and demonstrate against Klans in their area--whatever. Just to become more educated." ARA, he explained, has a long history of activism at underground music shows, so it was an obvious choice to join the tour. "The Museum of Tolerance was the one our publicist wanted to get involved," said Park. "That's in Los Angeles. It deals with the Holocaust. I've never been there, but it's supposed to be a really emotional experience." An unmanned exhibit from the museum stood out in the lobby, deserted.

"There was no time to really get things organized," Park confessed. "If we do this again, I'd need to get involved with organizations in each city and have them at the show. This tour, there's very little emphasis on racism. It's just the name of the tour. We say periodically in the set, 'Racism sucks,' which is not enough. Bob [Trondson, the drummer] from the Blue Meanies speaks before Less Than Jake, and that's it."

Despite Park's disappointment, the $23,000 Ska Against Racism donated to Anti-Racism Action and the National Council of Churches' Burned Churches Fund was a respectable figure. It included 100 percent of the profits from official Ska Against Racism merchandise--about $7,000--and the $15,000 that was left over after all the contractors took their cut from the $400,000 gross. With the exception of Less Than Jake and the Toasters, none of the bands made more than a couple hundred dollars a night, but backstage in Chicago Park expressed shock that the publicity alone had cost almost $15,000. "The headliners are getting paid very well," he said. "I'm not gonna lie. But that's not their fault. I offered it to them. I've never done a tour like this before. I've never hired a road manager that gets paid a lot of money, a stage manager. You've got to rent all the equipment. But I know next year I can cut down on a lot of costs, and I can ask bands to take reductions if they want to be part of something like this."

According to the Blue Meanies' Spunke, few of the bands came to the project with a passionate commitment to its message. "The beginning of the tour was so disappointing," he recalled. "I expected a lot more activism, and there wasn't really anything. And then I watched all the bands, and no one said anything." After a Los Angeles Times review noted the tour's empty sloganeering, the bands began to get religion, but there were still moments of ugly farce. In New Orleans and Cincinnati, Trondson was shouted down by impatient Less Than Jake fans, and in Phoenix the crowd turned nasty when Spunke mentioned the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. "I was just trying to get a rise, a response," he explains. "And I got the complete opposite. 'Fuck you! Fuck you, motherfucker! Fuck Martin Luther King.' I'm not saying one person, or ten--I'm saying a huge portion of the crowd was screaming, flipping me off, and telling me to get off the stage. It was one of the most tense moments I've ever had onstage. Finally I said, 'I guess you're in the wrong place. I don't know what you're doing here today.' I was terrified. I was afraid to go into the crowd that night."

Except for Trondson, the Blue Meanies had completed their leg on the tour several days before the Riv show, but the whole band was back for this hometown date. Compared to the can't-we-all-get-along sermons and out-and-out party tunes that predominated that night, the Meanies' latest release, Full Throttle (Thick), actually has some bite. "The Great Peacemaker" addresses kids with guns, "I'm a Have Not" draws a grim portrait of the yawning gap between rich and poor, and "The Devil Came to the 9th Ward" skewers the real estate interests carving up Chicago ("Seems the ghetto's got some value after all"). But musically the Meanies have begun to push ska-core to the far side of sanity, garnishing their brutal, mile-a-minute punk songs with intricate sax-and-trumpet riffs and only occasional flourishes of ska and swing. In contrast, the Toasters seemed almost stately. "This is the old style," trumpeter the Sledge announced, and the band launched into a ska version of the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin'." On songs like "Fire in My Soul" and "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down" the Toasters managed to straddle all four decades of ska, rocking hard without compromising the music's soul roots. Even on an off night--which this clearly was--they stole the show.

After their set I decided to check out the balcony. It was nearly full, and packs of grade-school kids ran up and down the aisles while a few parents sat back, suffering the speed metal that had displaced Chuck Wren's old 45s on the PA. So far all seven bands had strictly observed the schedule, cutting short their sets if they ran out of time, but Less Than Jake, which seemed to have pulled in a large portion of the crowd, kept us waiting well past the scheduled 9:50 start time. Finally Trondson stepped up to the center microphone. A bright guy who knows the issues, he might have talked about gross inequities in Chicago's schools, or the dismantling of Cabrini-Green, or the Lenard Clark case, but once again he was the only thing standing between several thousand teens and their idols of the moment. "Get off the stage!" some kids shouted. "Less Than Jake!" But Trondson had faced more hostile receptions than this one. He quieted the audience, delivered a brief, general pitch for community activism, and walked off to a wave of self-congratulatory applause. I could see the clown waiting in the wings.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Marty Perez.

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