How It Got Going
John Skomdahl Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff Writer
Meet Me in Jamaica LP Cover from the Late 1950's
COME FROM JAMAICA
other types of music - such as Classical, Jazz, & Blues - Reggae
is a relative newcomer in the world of music. In fact, many Americans
never even heard of Reggae until the late 1970's when Bob Marley
was busy showcasing one of Jamaica's best kept secrets to a worldwide
But Reggae did
not start or stop in the late 1970's - or with Bob Marley. Years
before the steady, loping beat of Reggae was mastered, there was
Ska & Rocksteady - Reggae's direct predecessors. Since those
formative years, Reggae has not onlysurvived, it has grown into
at least 7 sub genres, including Rockers - Roots - Nyahbinghi -
Dub - DJ - Lovers Rock - Dancehall - Modern Roots - all having their
own distinct sound and style.
though, Reggae has become the common buzzword for most people when
they hear the catchy, unique pace of authentic Reggae music. So
how did Reggae come about? For those of you who want a quick, sketch
of Reggae's inception, here you go:
Famed Jamaican producer, Duke Reid (left) with Fats Domino
(lower right) illustrates the connection Jamaica had with
American artists before the days of Ska and Reggae
INFLUENCE GOES FROM HOT TO COLD
Even though Reggae IS Jamaica's music, it didn't emerge without
outside influences. For decades, (1930's-1950's) Jamaicans were
heavily into the sounds of North America - namely Swing, Jazz and
early R&B records. The close proximity of Florida and Jamaica's
active seaport made it very easy for American records to seep their
way into Jamaican homes and dances. By the mid 1950's, Jamaicans
started losing interest in American records especially when the
music became less soulful, less edgy and less attractive.
Prophetically, Jamaicans quickly looked within for their musical
needs. This monumental switch from relying on American based tunes
for entertainment - to doing their own thing - ultimately helped
Jamaica create multiple indigenous sounds including Reggae.
Late 1950's RCA LP - Jamaica is now releasing their own music,
albeit Calypso/Mento. I love the liner notes that mention
the steel drums: "Who would have ever guessed that the
empty oil cans left by WWII GI's departing the CAribbean would
give birth to a new folk art.
Once the reliance on American records evaporated - Jamaicans picked
up their own instruments and pieced together their own bands and
rhythms. Recording studios popped up for the first time in the late
1950's and there was no shortage of people ready to make records.
Jamaicans began recording Mento, a variant of Calypso music, often
considered Jamaica's first folk music. The roots of Mento music
stretched back to the early 1920's and allowed Jamaicans a chance
to express their own life experiences via song. Other artists recorded
their own brand of American R&B music. Jamaicans had been singing
and performing internally for years, but this time around it was
making its way onto vinyl. Jamaica could now sell its music - and
not just buy it.
Sometime in the early 1960's, the experiences with Mento and the
influences of American Jazz gave way to a completely new music called
Ska. Ska, a fast paced, horn driven music took the island by
Singer Owen Gray, Los Angeles Ca., circa 1988. Photo by John
storm. The crisp, blazing sounds of Ska mirrored the high energy
of Jamaica in the early 1960's - which was teetering on the edge
of British rule and pending independence. By August 1962, Jamaica
was granted its independence from England - and the music scene
- as well as Jamaica - would never be the same again.
Ska became a form of expression and release that Mento or any other
type American music could not offer. Lead by the group the Skatalites,
Ska ran the scene in Jamaica from 1963 until 1966-7. Bob Marley
actually emerged in the Ska days - as did many other future reggae
stars. Although Ska was known mostly for its instrumentals, it wouldn't
be long before vocalists were lined up at the studio doors.
Singer Owen Gray shown on above right is a prime example of an
artist who started out in the Ska days but changed with the times
and became a solid Reggae singer up until this day.
SLIDES INTO REGGAE
Much like the
jump from Mento-to-Ska-to-Rocksteady, the flip to Reggae was made
with relative ease. Experimentation between extremely dedicated
musicians played a big hand in all these musical transitions. But
just as Ska became too fast for most Jamaicans, Rocksteady became
too slow. Reggae started to push Rocksteady aside by the late 1960's.
Reggae was often spelled "Reggay" when the switch
from Rocksteady occured.
heavily from both Ska and Rocksteady worlds - ultimately meshing
them together to create Jamaica's most well known style of music
- Reggae music! There are plenty of people who haven't heard of
Ska or Rocksteady but they could pin point Jamaica on a map if they
heard the word Reggae.
Some say the
term Reggae can be tied to the word "raggedy" - a reflection
on the gritty, non-slick atmosphere behind the music and Jamaica
during the late 1960's. Others say it was connected to the word
"streggay" - a street name for a prostitute. Some take
the more uplifting approach and link Reggae with "regal"-
referring to the King's music.
The first record
to use the word "Reggay" in the title of a song was Toots
and the Maytals "Do The Reggay" in 1968. For the next
decade, the pace of Reggae would stay somewhat unchanged
Here's a bare-bones Reggae LP cover. Simply put, it's "Reggae
were stylistic additions and variations. During the 1970's Dub,
Roots and DJ music utilized the Reggae beat - each taking on a life
of it's own. In general though, there were few changes in the musical
structure of Reggae until the late 1970's - early 80's.
One of the hallmarks
of 1970's Reggae was the welcoming flood of "conscious"
lyrics. Artists like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Culture (and many
many more) really woke people up by introducing social issues and
black consciousness into their songs. This militant, yet cultural
form of Reggae is often called "Roots Reggae."
became especially tough in Jamaica during the 70's and Reggae music
became a comforter, and soundboard, for the oppressed. No genre
of music had ever tackled poverty, corruption, hopelessness and
politics so directly as the 1970's brand of Reggae. Even though
1970's Reggae emphasized black pride it also became known as the
international music of self-empowerment and social justice. To this
day, Reggae is considered the music that speaks for the everyday
man and woman - no matter their nationality.
Reggae" artists were also known for some of the most spiritual
records of the 20th century. There are countless Roots Reggae songs
that overtly praised God Almighty for life itself. Messages of peace,
love and worldwide unity were also widely recorded but went amazingly
unheard by most of the world.
By the early
to mid 1980's technology slipped its way into Jamaica's backdoor
and virtually redirected the sound of Reggae. Within a blink of
a megabyte, a producer could create a rhythm track using a computer
versus employing a five-piece band. All this newfound technology,
plus the death of cultural icon Bob Marley, set Jamaican music up
for some very serious changes.
By 1985, producer
King Jammys made the first 100% computer generated rhythm. Many
people said Reggae music suffered heavily when these hardened, continuous
(and often monotonous) computerized beats replaced the melodic,
emotional sounds of traditional Reggae. Lyrics quickly swayed from
"peace, unity and love" to "sex, girls and guns"
- much like it did in America. "Slackness" became the
collective term to describe the onslaught of "less-than-righteous"
records that flooded the 1980's "dancehall" era.
Rough and tough looking Cutty Ranks (right) flexes his DJ
muscles while Coco Tea (left) symbolizes the rapid pace of
Dancehall music. Photo by John Skomdahl, Los Angeles, Ca.
Live bands disappeared
and DJs - artists who "talk" their lyrics versus sing
them - began to outnumber the soulful singers at an alarming rate.
Things became so lopsided in the 1980's that Reggae music basically
became known as Dancehall music because most venues (AKA dancehalls)
featured DJ's "talking slackness" over computerized rhythms.
These same Jamaican DJs would later be credited for inspiring the
American rap scene.
several Reggae artists stepped-up to the plate during the 1980's
and helped kept the kinder, more musical side of Reggae alive. Singers
Admiral Tibet, Coco Tea, and Eddie Fitzroy are examples of artists
who kept the minds (and lyrics) way above gutter levels. The 80's
came to a close and there wasn't a whole lot of things to brag about.
In the early
1990's, there was a miraculous swing back to the more "conscious"
side of Reggae with artists like Luciano, Tony Rebel and Anthony
B leading the way. The sound was fresh but the music and lyrics
seemed timeless. The days of "slackness" never ended completely
but at least a level of respect was brought back to Jamaican popular
music. Many people call this post 1990 "conscious/cultural"
movement "Modern Roots."
music is roughly divided into two camps - Dancehall and Reggae/Modern
Roots. Dancehall is preferred by most Jamaican youths, just like
Rap is the choice of many American teens. Reggae/Modern Roots is
usually left for the older crowd, but there a plenty of youth who
enjoy this sound too.
Who knows what
direction Reggae - or Dancehall - or whatever else one calls Jamaican
music - will turn to next. But considering the history of Jamaican
music, nothing will stay the same and the future won't be predicted
Chuck Foster, Roots Rock Reggae, Billboard Books, 1999
Stephen Davis & Peter Simon, Reggae International, Rogner &
Bernhard GMBH & Co., 1982
Steve Barrow & Peter Dalton, Reggae, The Rough Guide, Rough
Guides Ltd., 1997