The evolution of Jamaica’s most popular music
Jamaica, a small island in the Caribbean with a population of 2.9 million – less than double that of Montreal – has a global presence that has continued to grow in size over the years, especially in the music sphere.
Most know reggae as the Jamaican genre of music that promotes love, equality, and marijuana, though its history and origins are as deep and as rich as the land from which it comes. Reggae music was not created by one artist or musical group, nor was it created in a month or in a year. It came about from the influences of popular Jamaican dance music, ska and rocksteady, as well as various genres from the U.S. and other islands, whose influences over time came to produce what we know today as reggae.
Ska originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s. It was very popular amongst the working and middle-class Jamaicans in the early 60s, who helped it become the country’s most popular genre. Ska is a lighthearted, high-energy dancing music, generally featuring prominent trombone melodies and consistent drum patterns. These songs can most prominently be defined by their offbeat guitar riffs, which give the genre its dancing “feel.”
At a time when American music began heavily influencing the sound of the Caribbean, American jazz and rhythm and blues (R&B) were combined with Jamaican mento and calypso to form ska. Ska’s international popularity began to grow when places like the U.K. and Germany put their own spin on the island-bred genre by adding elements of punk rock to create the “Two-Tone” and “Third Wave” forms of ska. Jamaican music, on the other hand, began to veer in a slightly different direction.
That is when rocksteady, a genre more closely comparable to present-day reggae, was born. Many like to describe rocksteady as a slowed down version of ska, though there are a few more substantial differences between both genres.
Rocksteady, frequently dubbed the bridge between ska and reggae, originated in the mid-1960s in Jamaica. This music is defined by its slower tempo (half that of ska’s), keyboard melodies and prominent bass which replaced the frequent trombone/brass presence in ska, and allowed for more improvisation and creativity by the bassist. This would play opposite to the syncopated, repetitive guitar and keyboard melodies. Also, its smaller band sizes brought more focus and attention to the bass line—a recognizable characteristic of Jamaican music.
Rocksteady only had about two years at the forefront of the Jamaican music scene, as reggae came to be in the late 1960s. While many were optimistic in the wake of Jamaican independence in 1962, those living in the poverty-stricken areas still sought a platform to express their frustrations.
Songs that discuss love and romance can be connected to American jazz and soul songs, which heavily influenced the Caribbean at the time. Those that discuss poverty and violence can be more easily tied to the reggae of today, which frequently features similar themes. Social issues in the communities, such as poverty and violence, are discussed more than in ska, though romance and love were still common themes.
Its growing popularity outside of Jamaica helped to secure the international fanbase that reggae music has today, being the most popular music genre to come out of the country. Still popular today, it was brought to the world’s attention by world-renowned icon and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Bob Marley.
While its musical characteristics like the keyboard melodies and prominent bass lines remained, African drums were added to the as a key element of its sound. Lighthearted themes such as love, romance, and family could still be found in reggae’s lyrics, but there was a shift.
The heavy influence of the Rastafari movement—a spiritual faith that originated in Jamaica in the 1930s— were its most significant influence as Jamaica entered the 1970s. Spirituality and faith became the driving message behind the music. Themes such as oppression, violence, and corruption frequented the reggae singers’ melodic, raw vocals.
The influence of the Rastafari movement had a significant impact on the genre’s lyrics as well as its audience growth. Countries with growing Rastafari member presence, such as England and Kenya, saw a significant rise in reggae’s popularity.
As for the music’s lyrics, equality, Pan-Africanism, and the benefits of marijuana were Rastafari beliefs that were reflected in reggae’s lyrical messages.
According to Julie-Anne Corby, a rasta and reggae singer formerly part of the Canadian reggae-roots band, Selassie I Power, the reggae scene in Montreal is dormant, but not gone.
“Montreal’s reggae scene is separated,” she explained. “It’s hard for artists to get paid, and there’s a lack of respect there.”
While she continues to do her part in keeping the reggae scene alive in the city, performing at various local shows and festivals, Corby feels assured that reggae’s presence won’t be disappearing from the world’s music scene anytime soon.
“Everywhere you go, even if they don’t know the name of the music, everyone knows Bob Marley,” Corby said. “There will be run-off genres such as dancehall and rap, but reggae itself can never die because people need to hear a message in this dark world. It soothes people.”
Graphic by Ana Bilokin