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Reggae: How It Got Going

By John Skomdahl Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff Writer

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Meet Me in Jamaica LP Cover from the Late 1950's


Compared to 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 audience.

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.

For convenience 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:

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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


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.

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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

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Singer Owen Gray, Los Angeles Ca., circa 1988. Photo by John Skomdahl.

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.


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.

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Reggae was often spelled "Reggay" when the switch from Rocksteady occured.

Reggae borrowed 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

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Here's a bare-bones Reggae LP cover. Simply put, it's "Reggae Time"

although there 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."

Living conditions 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.

"Roots 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.

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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. Early 1990's.

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.

Thankfully, 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."

Today, Jamaican 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 with ease.

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