Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Ska-loving teens look for their big break

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Siafu jams in the basement of Austin Litz’s house in Gaithersburg. They are (from left) Eric Karbeling on trumpet, Lukas Martinson on guitar, Austin Litz on saxophone, Pat Hawbecker on keyboard, Robbie Jones on bass, Leo Vieira on trumpet and Nick Thrasher on drums.
Although they’ve only been jamming together for one year, a group of upcounty teens will soon pack up their trumpets, drums, guitars and saxophones and head south to take the stage at one of the nation’s largest ska shows.

Siafu, a seven-member band of longtime friends, will play at Ska Weekend 2007 in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday after winning a competition last month.

‘‘It’s like a dream come true,” guitarist Lukas Martinson said during an interview with the group earlier this month.

The fourth annual festival is expected to draw 3,000 people and include more than two dozen ska bands, whose styles are rooted in jazz, swing and reggae.

Some of those performing, such as the Slackers, a band from New York City, and the Pietasters, from Washington, D.C., are ones Siafu’s members grew up admiring, said bassist Robbie Jones, 17, of Urbana.

Siafu, named after a carnivorous breed of African ant, is composed of Gaithersburg High School seniors and one recent graduate, keyboardist Pat Hawbecker, 18, of Laytonsville.

The others are Eric Karbeling on trumpet, of Laytonsville; Austin Litz on sax, of Gaithersburg; Martinson of Gaithersburg; Nick Thrasher on drums, of Germantown; and Leo Vieira on trumpet, of Gaithersburg. They are all 17.

Many met each other in middle school.

Karbeling said he came across the Ska Weekend competition while he was surfing the Web.

Bands had to drum up support to win a spot in the lineup by encouraging fans to e-mail their votes.

Of the roughly 30 bands that entered, Siafu flattened the competition with 1,600 votes, event founder and music booking agent Ben Altom wrote in an e-mail.

‘‘I was rather impressed to talk to these guys and to see what they’ve done to work to get this slot,” he said by phone from Knoxville. Altom said he likes Siafu’s blend of styles.

Siafu, the only band of teens at Ska Weekend, will play a 30-minute set.

‘‘I tell people all the time my favorite stage [at Ska Weekend] isn’t the main stage with the big names, it’s the regional stage with bands,” he said. ‘‘Bands like Siafu busted their tails to get this opportunity, and that’s what it’s really about.”

During the past year, Siafu has played about 25 shows in the Washington, D.C., area, including clubs and house parties.

Sometimes they’ll open with a few notes of Journey’s uplifting classic ‘‘Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Although the song is not ska, it’s indicative of Siafu’s broad influences, including punk rock and rap.

‘‘It’s how we get everybody to notice it’s time to play,” Hawbecker said with a sly smile.

When they do play, as during a recent rehearsal at Litz’s house, their influences are pronounced. They write their own songs, with everyone contributing in crafting the music, said Litz, whose family owns Victor Litz Music in Olde Towne Gaithersburg.

The sonic layers of their instruments blend smoothly during the reggae movements, while the music climbs to a deafening roar in the tiny practice space during the heavy metal-styled crescendos.

For some groups, like High School Football Heroes, playing at the Knoxville concert was the first step to performing at other national shows, Altom said.

Even as it appears many of Siafu’s members will part ways for college at the end of the upcoming school year, most said they are willing to pursue a music career together.

Siafu, like most bands at Ska Weekend, won’t be paid. It’s mostly a matter of exposure, Litz said.

‘‘The kids are so into this, and I think it’s exciting for everybody,” said Mary Hawbecker, Pat’s mother.

Valerie Karbeling said she’s proud of her son’s success and his decision to pursue a music career, but she has a few guidelines.

‘‘As long as he can make money, I’m fine with it,” she said. ‘‘But he’s going to college first.”

Turn it up

To hear Siafu’s music, visit www.myspace.com⁄siafuska.

To learn more about the festival or to buy tickets, visitwww.skaweekend2007.com.