In the middle of the 1960s, Jamaican reggae surfaced as a new music to catch the interest of record buyers, especially in the big cities of England and the United States.
Jamaica is a wondrous mix of many cultures. For four hundred years, though, Jamaica – a tiny corner of the Third World – has been a boiling caldron of human misery, greed, corruption, and deep multicultural hostilities. The aboriginal inhabitants, members of the Arawakan linguistic stock of native North Americans, called their homeland Xaymaca, "Isle of Springs". Visited by Christopher Columbus in 1494, Jamaica became an official Spanish colony in 1509. In an effort to make slaves of the Arawakan Indians, the Spanish killed them off almost completely. African natives were then imported to overcome the resultant labor shortage (Morse 1960, 5154).
England took over Jamaica in 1670, and it soon became a major producer of sugar cane and cacao, labor-intensive industries in the extreme. Kingston thus became one of the world's principal slave-trading centers, both for North America and Jamaica itself. Insurrections and armed warfare by maroons (bands of slaves who had escaped to interior hideouts) continued until the abolition of slavery in 1831, at which time 300,000 slaves were set free. However, even though they had gained their freedom, they were still mistreated by oppressive taxation, discriminatory legal rules and procedures, and land-exclusion measures, which caused widespread unrest among the blacks.
In 1940, the United States obtained a lease on various prime Jamaican land areas and important dockyard installations. These leases, turned over to huge American corporations, were renegotiated with local Jamaican officials when Britain gave Jamaica its independence in 1962.
Of the several folk music styles in Jamaica, the one called mento leads directly to reggae. Mento, a slow version of a Cuban-styled rumba combined with African rhythms, comes from the Spanish verb mentar, meaning "to mention", referring to the subtle ways their song lyrics, sometimes accompanied by symbolic dance steps, express personal complaints and intense sociopolitical criticism of the ruling classes. Subtlety is necessary to avoid offending the audience, while still getting the point across (Charlton 1990, 221).
Mento is performed by street corner bands of guitar, banjo, drum, occasionally trumpet, and any other instruments available. Mento street music is, of course, looked down upon as insufferably low-class by all upper levels of society – native, black, white, and all mixtures thereof.
And in Jamaica, as everywhere in the world, adolescents from the upper levels of society find this low-class music wonderfully appealing when they arrive at the age of social consciousness in their late teens. It's a form of mildly acceptable temporary rebellion against the establishment – the very establishment they will most assuredly join in a few short years.
When mento street musicians heard 1950s' American R&B beamed down from the powerful radio stations in Florida, they began to work some of those musical ingredients into their music. The result was called ska coming, perhaps, from "skat", a simulation of the scratching sound made by strumming a guitar, probably much like Bo Diddley's strumming technique.
Thus ska emerged in the middle 1950s, with horns, R&B riffs, and a shuffle rhythm much like that made famous by Louis Jordan. The Jamaican ska musicians called that rhythm "chug-a-lug", and they accented the last part of each beat with such emphasis that it was often perceived as the main beat. Ska rhythm was thus said to have a "hesitation beat".
Recording studios arose in Jamaica to make money on this new and exciting music, the first and most famous being Clement "Coxone" Dodd's Studio One. Dodd's main studio musicians, a nineteen-piece resident house band, were the Skatalites – consisting of four trumpet-fluegelhorn players, two trombonists, two alto and two tenor saxophonists, two guitarists, three keyboard players, a bass guitarist, and three percussionists (Charlton 1990, 223). Not all musicians were used on every recording, of course.
The Skatalites backed up the Maytals, the Wailers, and the Heptones. "Guns of Navarone" by the Skatalites made the British charts in 1967. Earlier, in 1964, a Jamaican singer, Millie Small (b. 1946), came out with "My Boy, Lollipop" which placed in the American Billboard listings. That recordings was made in London (Rod Stewart played harmonica, incidentally) (Shaw 1982, 307), and the session was produced by a Jamaican of British ancestry, Chris Blackwell. Blackwell used the profits to set up his own Island Record Company in London.
Ska is not dead, at all. It comes and goes, picking up bits and pieces from other rock styles, but hangs on to a small crowd of fans, especially in college towns, it seems. In the 1990s, the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones were Lollapalooza's first mainstage ska band and one of ska's biggest American underground-to-minor-mainstream success stories with their hit "The Impression That I Get" (Mike Breen in [Cincinnati, Ohio], May 8-14, 1997, p. 17).
By 1966, the original pure ska style in Jamaica had begun to undergo changes. Wilson Pickett and Booker T. and the MGs injected gospel vocalisms and a heavy bass line into some of the ska they performed. Tempos were slowed, and the new style was called rocksteady. "Oh Ba-a-by" by the Techniques and "Rock Steady" by Alton Ellis made the English charts in the late 1960s (Charlton 1990, 223).
When Jamaican disc jockeys heard American radio personalities talk in and around the recordings, they (the Jamaican DJs) took the idea even further by talking in rhythmic patter while ska and rocksteady records were played. The practice was called "toasting" when it was just rhythmic chatter, but when it grew into actually changing the sound of the recording it was called "dubbing" (Charlton 1990, 223). They were, in a sense, dubbing in their contribution to the recording.
Dubbing was soon performed in the recording studios as an essential element of spoken patter over a rocksteady beat. When New York funk disc jockeys like Joseph Saddler, known as Grandmaster Flash, heard what the Jamaican disc jockeys were doing, they (the New Yorkers) began some techniques that lead very quickly to rap (Charlton 1990, 101).
In 1968, the Maytals released "Do the Reggay". Deriving from the Latin regis, meaning "king", reggae (the more common spelling) came to mean "king's music". The king referred to was the King of Ethiopia, Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael (1892-1975), who was considered to have fulfilled the prophecy of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940).
Garvey, a black Jamaican printer and editor, formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which aimed to lift the socioeconomic circumstances for all blacks worldwide. His most imaginative plan was the Black Star Line Steamship Company organized with the idea that the blacks would return from the United States and the West Indies to Africa to establish their own modern highly industrialized nations. After $500,000 in stock was sold, the project failed, and Garvey was imprisoned for mail fraud. Even with these issues, Garvey's dream caught the fancy of blacks throughout the West Indies, especially his "Back to Africa" theme which urged his followers to "Look to Africa for the crowning of a black king, and he shall be the redeemer" (Hebdige 1977, 52).
When Tafari Makonnen came of age and was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, he took the name Haile Selassie I (Amharic for "Power of the Trinity"). His compassionate and humanitarian governing style, particularly his abolition of slavery, brought him hundreds of thousands of admirers all over the world, and the blacks in the West Indies began to believe he was their redeemer, the black Messiah that Marcus Garvey had spoken of.
Rastafarians (from the title "Ras", meaning "king", and his birth name "Tafari") in the West Indies have developed a set of guiding principles, beliefs, and rituals. Some grow dreadlocks and cite Biblical passages to explain why they don't cut their hair. Many smoke ganja (marijuana), believing it to be a holy herb. Many live as artists, fishermen, and craftsmen, and refuse to pay taxes or to work for the competitive commercial world which they call Babylon. Instead, they look toward Zion – black Africa. Many Rastafarians are vegetarians. Some wear the red, green, and gold colors of the Ethiopian flag. Others wear the red, green, and black of Marcus Garvey's UNIA jackets (Hebdige 1977, 53).
Borrowing from Burru folk drumming traditions, European harmonies, mento melodies, ska, and, rocksteady, the style known as reggae began to make its presence felt. Using modern amplified lead and rhythm guitars, piano, organ, bass guitar, drums, and assorted Jamaica percussion instruments, reggae's infectious beat moved into more commercial success than the earlier styles mentioned above.
Reggae bassists, with the lead guitarist sometimes doubling at the octave, typically set up syncopated ostinato patterns which often avoid the first beat. The percussionists offer a heavy back beat revealing their debt to American R&B. There is no single specific reggae style, however. It absorbs many subtleties from other styles.
Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly" (1972) and "Stir It Up" (1973) were early evidence of reggae's influence in American pop music. Reggae also influenced many British groups – especially the punk groups, who shared reggae's stance against police brutality, racism, corrupt business practices, and other establishment conditions. The Clash covered Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" (1977), and came out with their own "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" (1978). Madness came out with "The Prince" (1979). The Specials released "Gangsters" (1979) under their own label, 2 Tone Records.
The Body Snatchers, Bad Manners, the English Beat, and several other British punk-inclined bands took to ska-reggae easily, particularly the group called UB40 out of Birmingham, who cried out against English, rather than Jamaican, poverty. Their name, UB40, came from a code on the cards issued by the British government to apply for unemployment benefits (Charlton 1990, 228).
Perhaps the best-known British bank to use ska and reggae regularly in their music was the Police. Led by Gordon Sumner (b. 1951) on bass – nicknamed "Sting" by jazzman Gordon Soloman, because of the yellow and black striped t-shirt Sumner wore that made him look like a bee – with Andy Summers on guitar and Stewart Copeland on drums, the Police recorded Reggatta de Blanc ("white Reggae") in 1979. That album containing "Message in a Bottle", a No. 1 single in the UK. The ska and reggae influence is also heard in "Walking on the Moon", "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da", "Spirits in the Material World", and many other songs by the Police.
The real thing, however, had been around since 1964 with the formation of the Wailin' Rude Boys, a vocal group comprised of adolescents from the Trenchtown ghetto of West Kingston. They were Robert Nesta "Bob" Marley (1945-1981), Winston Hubert McIntosh (Peter Tosh) (1944-1987), Neville O'Riley Livingston (Bunny Wailer) (b. 1947), Junior Braithwaite (1949-1999), Cherry Smith (1943-2008) and Beverley Kelso (b. 1948). "Rude boys" were gangs of hostile Jamaican punk-style male teenagers who roamed around creating serious trouble, much like the British skinheads a few years later.
Gradually softening their rude boy image, the Wailers came out with several strong sociopolitical songs, "Small Ax" (1970) and "Get Up, Stand Up" (1973), all backed by the Upsetters, Lee "Scratch" Perry's resident studio band (Hebdige 1987, 78).
Catch a Fire Burnin' on Chris Blackwell's Island label brought them to international attention when Eric Clapton made a big hit out of a cover of "I Shot the Sheriff". By 1974, Tosh and Wailer left the group because they didn't want to tour. The group reorganized as Bob Marley and the Wailers with Marley, brothers Carlton "Carly" (1950-1987) and Aston "Family Man" Barrett (b. 1943) on drums and bass, Alvin "Seeco" Patterson (b. 1930) on percussion, Junior Marvin (b. 1949) and Al Anderson (b. 1950) on lead guitar, Tyrone Downie (b. 1956) and Earl "Wire" Lindo (b. 1953) on keyboards, and a backup female vocal trio called the I Three's, consisting of Judy Mowatt (b. 1953), Marcia Griffiths (b. 1949), and Marley's wife, Rita (b. 1946). Soon they played to huge crowds Europe and the United States.
Their last big show together was as the opening act for the Commodores in New York's Madison Square Garden in September, 1980. On May 11, 1981, Bob Marley died of cancer at age 36. Eventually, Marley's children entered show business, too, as Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, who disbanded in 2002.
James Chambers (b. 1948), calling himself Jimmy Cliff, dropped out of school to pursue a career in music. At age 14, his first effort at songwriting, "Hurricane Hattie", named for a storm that had swept the Caribbean in the early 1960s, went to No. 1 in Jamaica. He then went on tour in America as a new reggae "find". He appeared in 1972, at age 22, in a semi-autobiographical movie called The Harder They Come, a story about the greed, corruption, and brutality in the Jamaican music industry.
In 1974, Cliff went to Nigeria for the first time to study Islam, which he eventually converted to. On a subsequent trip to South Africa in 1980, with the condition that the audience be racially diverse, he played to a crowd of 75,000 in Soweto, fourteen years before the end of apartheid (Lazell 1989, 101). He and his new backup band, called Oneness, began to draw notice in late 1982.
Jimmy Cliff co-headlined the World Music Festival at the Bob Marley Center in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in October, 1982. In 1984, on the first occasion of a reggae category in the awards, Cliff was nominated for a Grammy for "Reggae Night", written by LaToya Jackson and Amir Bayyan (of Kool and the Gang). "Trapped", Cliff's contribution to the USA for Africa recording on We Are the World, was performed by Bruce Springsteen.
He continues to tour and to record, with his last album, Rebirth, released in 2012.
The growth of reggae illustrates a common occurrence in the history of popular music in Western civilization: what starts out as the social protest music of an oppressed and poverty-stricken ethnic or racial community eventually becomes the fashionable pop "in thing" with middle-class Caucasian adolescents, a few of whom share the social concerns, but most of whom are the children of the fathers and grandfathers whose corporations are the very cause of that oppression and poverty in the first place. Strange are the ways of human behavior. Generation after generation, however, the same patterns seem to be at work.