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A History of Jamaican Reggae
Mention Jamaica and most peoples instant thought perhaps, is Reggae music, and most likely, especially for a non Jamaican, it will be the legendary Bob Marley.
However, the history of Reggae is much longer than this and started around the early 1950s with ‘mento’ music, which was a mix of European and African dance music.
As most Jamaicans lived in near poverty, for entertainment they would get today to play the records of the day, and often the people who operated the sound systems would become almost celebrities, often ‘toasting’ or adding lyrics over the record, perhaps and early forerunner of rap styles.
The first record label in Jamaica was formed in 1954 and musicians began to form bands leading to the first distinctive Jamaican music which was called ‘bluebeat’ which revolved around saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, drums and bass.
It wasn’t long before the prominent indentifying sound of Jamaican music came to the fore with the bass booming from the records at levels not commonly associated with European music. This rhythmic style eventually developed into what we know as Ska music.
The first Ska record to be recorded was ‘Easy Snapping’ by Theophilus Beckford in 1959 but the best known Ska singer was, without a doubt, Prince Buster who recorded such classics as ‘Al Capone’ and ‘Whine and Grine’.
Another popular, if perhaps unlikely hit, was Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’. This was followed by Desmond Dekker with ‘The Israelites’.
Ska music became very popular with the skinhead movement in the UK
Eventually, Ska ran its course and developed into a more laid back yet highly political music known as Rocksteady, named after an Alton Ellis hit. Guitars came to the fore in this style, often replacing the horns which were previously so common. The music became identified with youth movements such as the Jamaican Rude Boys and the Punks in the Uk, producing anthemic songs such as ‘Judge Dread’ by Prince Buster. The other change in this form is that vocals came to the front of the music much more leading to groups such as the wailers and the Maytals coming forward.
The word Reggae, up until this point had not yet been heard of but came around 1960 to emphasise a looser form of dance music based on a syncopated beat which had become popular with the Rastafarians. This style of music reverted back more to the bass sound. This ‘dark’ sound was often identified with the criminal underworld and gang violence but songs like ‘Wonderful world, beautiful people’ by Jimmy Cliff brought the music to the attention of the ‘peace and love’ ear in the US.
Eventually, the music became sweeter and more suited to European ears which led to the massive success of Bob Marley and the Wailers, by far the most popular Reggae musician of all time.
There was still however, another less commercial side to the development of Reggae with the advent of Dub music which basically came about through sound engineers playing around with B sides of singles and adding echoes and sound effects to them. One of the best known of these was King Tubby. Whilst this type of reggae never became commercially popular, it undoubtedly had a major influence on many musicians.
Once again though, a more commercial style came to the fore and Jamaican artists started to earn a decent living. Amongst them Burning Spear, U Roy, Culture, Dennis Brown and Lovers Rock singer Janet Kay who recorded the classic ‘Silly Games’
British bands such as UB40 and Aswad also adapted the style for a British audience successfully in the 1980s and bands such as the Clash and the Slits used Reagge influences heavily in their music.
The music once again moved on and dancehall became the latest sound although this has often been criticised for its aggression and attitude towards women and homophobic lyrics.