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Jamaican Music Transitions And History For Dancehall and Reggae

Updated on March 19, 2014
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Carolee is a passionate writer with a love for learning and teaching. She is a published author, poet, blogger, and content creator.

The Jamaican music has seen many twists and turns, many ups and downs. We have evolved from a nation ruled by other nations and now free. Free to sing and play our music for all the world to hear.

Jamaica is known for its reggae music but the reggae sound evolved from genres before its time. Music that came from other cultures before. When the reggae was developed it was the start of a new era when Jamaica music could stand up against the best of the blues, or pop and any other music from around the globe.

Now the Jamaican sound has taken center stage as we are winning Grammy after Grammy, our music on the Billboard at every turn. Our music being chosen as the music of the millennium thanks to Bob Marley's "One Love".

Most people associate Jamaican music with Bob Marley or Reggae, but before Reggae there were other genres which helped to mold the sweet sounds you are hearing today into what they are. Below are the different genres of music coming out of Jamaica.

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Folk Music

Jamaican folk music was borne out of a people who were trying to find their place in the new world. After facing such turmoil, slavery, then freedom with a price. Life was hard. People sang about their daily lives and hardships.

Songs of freedom also found their way into the music as life got better. Love, friendships and some of the African folklore in there too.

In 1907 a compilation of the Jamaican folk songs were published in a book by Walter Jekyll. Folk music is as popular today as the day it was first created with our Jamaica Folk Singers and the Carifolk Singers making sure to keep our memories in tune so we never forget where we are coming from.

Original folk music never came with instruments as the slaves and laborers had no musical instruments and some of these songs were made up while they were in the fields, or a night around a fire, telling "Anancy" stories. All Jamaican music originated here.

**Anancy stories are African folklore about a spider called Br'er Anancy (Brother Anancy)


Originally, drumming was an African tradition. When the slaves came here they were allowed to do their drumming and have their own little party. The estate owners saw no harm in allowing this and they themselves found it amusing.

However, the slaves used the drums to send messages from estate to estate as they were not allowed to speak with each other. It was also used in rituals to celebrate birth or to mourn the dead. Drumming has become a huge part of Jamaica's culture and Kumina is to blame.

Now in the 21st century Kumina is a very popular way of sending off the dead. This music is played at the home of the deceased for 9 nights until the dead is buried.

These days the music is transitioning unto CDs and being marketed as regular music.


In the 19th century our people wanted to create their own music. They were tired of listening to predominantly European music yet liking the sound of the instruments, they brought the best of both their world and the white man's world together creating what is now known as the grandfather of Reggae.

It is believed that mento started way back when we were slaves and the master used to ask the musically inclined slaves to play for them. The slaves, trying to please their masters would try to play the European music but the African sounds would find their way inside there somewhere.

Mento uses the African sound and European sound to give music a unique and one of a kind sound. Mento is an original creation of Jamaica, our first original sound.

Mento is not known worldwide or listened to by the masses who love reggae yet without mento there would be no reggae, but wait a bit, several genres came out of mento.

One Popluar mento song was made popluar by Harry Belafonte when he covered "Day O" popularly known as the banana boat song. Mento lyrics are influenced by everyday life.

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Ska came out of the 1950s and this music could be dubbed as the first dancehall music. This music is a combination of several genres including jazz, American R&B of the era, the mento and calypso.

The genre of music called ska was the creation as a version of the American music. The Jamaican people were hearing the American sound so often and of course the Americans were leading in the music industry at the time so they decided to record their own version of Jazz and Rhythm & Blues.

Ska is a lively sound that makes you want to dance. Its sound is infectious and when you hear it you can definitely see why reggae is so popular.

There are several claim to fame about the word ska and why the music was coined as that. The famous Ernie Ranglin said that the strum of the guitar had a scratching sound and the musicians referred to that as "skat, skat skat". That still doesn't really explain how the music became "ska".

Another version is that while recording in the studio in 1959, bassist Cluett Johnson told Ernie to play "ska, ska, ska" on his instrument. Ernest Ranglin categorically denied this stating that Johnson could not tell him what to play.

Anyway, no matter how the name came about there is one thing for sure that the musicians of the era like Duke Reid, Prince Buster, Ernest Ranglin, Clement Dodd were somehow responsible for creating the music.


The Ska music was so successful and the Jamaicans were on a roll. They had created two genre's of music that they could solely call their own, they decided that that wasn't enough. Around the mid 1960s the Jamaicans again mixed jazz, R&B, the African sound and some of the Latin American sound along with other genres to make it into Rocksteady.

Around about that era Jamaicans were traveling to Cuba and Panama to work on sugar plantations, so they would have had first hand experience of the central American and Latin music.

Rocksteady isn't as fast dancing as ska but non-the-less just an infectious. This genre didn't last long and died down in about two years making way for reggae.



During those infamous 1960s when ska and Rocksteady became famous, Reggae was born. You could say that Jamaican music was borne out of experimenting with different styles and genres and it worked, so instead of leaving it there they decided to create more music and got a sound that didn't sound like anything anyone had ever heard or done before.

Reggae was the most unique of all the sounds the Jamaicans had ever created, drowning out the Latin music, the jazz and the R&B, yet enhancing them to make music that slowly but steadily begin to catch the world on fire.

To date, reggae is one of the most popular music in the world. The song of the millennium is a reggae song, One Love!

Robert Nester Marley who came on the music scene round about that time, began to take reggae to the world. Of course there are other great men behind the music. Bob didn't create reggae, he is only the messenger but people relate to him for he is the one they hear. However, Bob wasn't alone, the band he worked with, The Wailers were very instrumental in making reggae what it is.

Other music icons who made reggae famous were Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Dennis Brown.


Dancehall came about as the dance music of the US became popular in the 70s. Dancehall was really supposed to be a faster version of reggae which people could dance to. So really dancehall music is a spin-off of reggae music, or another experiment which paid off.

By the 80s, the music got even faster due to the introduction of digital musical instruments and so the dancehall music increasingly got popular.

The comparison would be: Dancehall music is Jamaican's version of funk and disco, but please don't say that out loud! They sound nothing alike but dancehall was really created because of these genres. Jamaicans wanted their own dance music, hence dancehall.

By the 90s the music became so popular that it began to outshine reggae, however, some musical artistes worked really hard to keep reggae alive.

Danchall music was made popular by Sizzla and Capleton, dancehall icons.

Nyabinghi drumming

Other Jamaican sounds

It would be remiss of me not to mention the other sounds that came out of our Jamaican heritage or music.

  • Dub is a sub-genre of reggae and is really a mixture of already existing music. The music is edited to remove the vocals, trimmed to reveal the drum and bass, so leaving a heavy beat. Purely instrumental. You can take a dub and remake it however you want. In essence you can take a piece of reggae recording and remake it to sound completely different. Usually people will purchase what is known as a dub plate and record their own sound over that.
  • Niyabinghi is an African sound much like the kumina, you could call it a sub-genre of kumina. The niyabinghi is a sound developed by the Rastafarians way back. Niyabinghi means "black victory" and the music celebrates this victory.

As you can see Jamaica has a rich music history as we seek to find our place in the world. Our music has broken down walls and barriers and can be found in almost every nation and loved by many people.



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    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Hi Teaches, yes, I am fascinated with the drums the most. To date I think Kumina is my favorite Jamaican music. That song doesn't seem to get old and many people from around the world has redone it many times as well as it being in many movies and tv shows.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      I found the tidbit on drumming interesting, it must have been helpful in saving many lives. I enjoyed the different music on the videos. I remember the Day-O song and I still hear people singing it here in the tropics. Great hub post. Voted up.

    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Thanks Ruby, I know that many people are not familiar with some of our music and they associate Bob with reggae, but Bob came much later in the music industry. We have the earlier generation to thank for our music.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      7 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I love the sound of reggae, you've put together a great selection of music, some i'm not familiar with. I listened to a lot of Bob Marley when Sky was writing on Hubpages. ( BTW I miss him. ) Thank you Cardisa. Cheers..

    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Hello carter06, glad you loved th ehub and the Jamaican music. Thanks for reading and commenting. Have a great day!

    • carter06 profile image


      7 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      Gosh this is interesting Cardisa!! thanks for writing that's where ska came from...I heard somebody talk about it a while ago and didn't know what they really meant but now I do, I so love that beat.

      Great hub voted up interesting, awesome and shared...cheers

      Ps and btw who didn't like Marley, pure genius!!

    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Hi Mhatter, so you love reggae too. I am surprised at the amount of people that actually love the music. Reggae is

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this. When I was younger, we had "Reggae in the Park", in Berkeley CA. It turned into 3 day and 2 night of Jamaica (including food)

    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Hey Dana, thanks for stopping by.

    • profile image

      Dana Greco 

      7 years ago

      Bob Marley Rules !

    • profile image

      Anastasia Vaughan 

      7 years ago

      You welcome.

    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Hello Anastasia, thanks for stopping by. I will check out your hub.

    • Anastasia Vaughan profile image

      Anastasia Vaughan 

      7 years ago from From Miami Fl to Hollywood Fl

      Oh my gosh I grew up hearing treasure Isles every Saturday night session time. This article is great I wrote one on the feeling that reggae please check it out and tell me your opinion. I knew about ska,mentos, rock steady but I did not know about Kumina. Thank You for the insightful lesson.

    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Hey there Lord, I wish I could travel to these places. Uruguay is one of my favorite soccer teams! Yeah The original Jamaican music including mento and ska has some Latin american in there so maybe some Brazil music may me intertwined in there somewhere. Nice seeing you as always.

    • Lord De Cross profile image

      Joseph De Cross 

      7 years ago from New York

      Great review. Been to Cartagena and Panama. Have heard radio stations from Jamaica (ya man!). The music is just unique and make us wanna dance. Uruguayans adopted a different version of that ska. Actually those uruguayans were descendants from Brazilian slaves. Music has evolved all over. I can talk about Cuba and Mambo, but I might get this commenting into a musical addendum. Thanks Cardisa!

    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Hello Xstatic, dancehall is a rough version of reggae. It's not easy on the ears and is usually liked by certain classes. I don't listen to much dancehall even though there are some songs I really like. Thanks for stopping by.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 

      7 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Up and all but funny on this one Cardisa. I have been a reggae fan ever since I first heard it. I remember seeing The Harder They Fall in a theater in California years ago. The music was such a big part of that film. Belafonte, Marley and Jimmy Cliff have been US favorites for a long time. Marely is on my IPOD. Thanks for describing dancehall too. It was not a distinction I was able to make, though I hve not listened to much of it either.

    • Cardisa profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolee Samuda 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      Thank you Modern Lady.

    • Modern Lady profile image

      Modern Lady 

      7 years ago from Chicago, IL

      This is a wonderful hub! Up and shared.


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