THE LOUDEST ISLAND - A Brief History of Jamaican Music: Nicky Dread

From Time Before

Music has always been an important factor in the lives of Jamaicans and other West Indians. Jamaican music comes from an African foundation, influenced early on by the music of Europe, especially England & France, and later by American popular music.

The great-great grandparent of Reggae is mento, a loose-sounding folk music, sometimes confused with calypso, a Trinidad-born music. Mento's lyrical food is topical issues. It draws on the fife and drum music of Jonkanoo, Pocomania church music, the quadrille, and work songs learned on plantations, and passed through generations.

By the 1950s Jamaican youth were more interested in listening to American music, popularized by radio stations in the US south, and sound systems - portable dance machines that were to change the face of Jamaican music. Soon dance halls would rock to the beat of Duke Reid's Trojan sound, Sir Coxsone's Downbeat, Prince Buster's Voice Of The People, V-Rocket, and many others. To protect the identity of the their music many sound system operators defaced or removed the labels from their records.

In short order local musicians were called on to record music that emulated the sound of the imported American music. "Jamaican Blues" or "Blue Beat" was a shuffling Jamaican interpretation of R & B. As time wore on the prominence of the off-beat rhythm supplied by the horn section grew, as did that of the guitar or piano. By 1958 this style was fast transforming into a blazing fire - Ska! It is said that the sound of the off-beat horn riff inspired the term Ska.

Cuban music also had its influence. Brought to Jamaica by immigrants like Rolando Alphonso it has played a key role in the development of Jamaican music. Trinidad, Barbados and other West Indian islands also exported singers and musicians to Jamaica (like Lynn Taitt and Jackie Opel). They too brought their musical influences to the birth and development of Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae.

The Blazing Fire

Ska combines the catchy backbeat of New Orleans- style R & B, and mento. Many early Ska songs were covers of popular American songs. Typically Ska drums stress beats 2 & 4 over a "walking" quarter-note bass, with the guitar or piano striking the offbeats in a syncopated mento style. Ska's tempo was especially appealing to the restless Jamaican youth, and was always the music of the poor.

SkaSome reggae historians identify the R & B song that fathered the Ska beat as "No More Doggin'" (1952) by Roscoe Gordon, a Memphis piano player. The "one and two and three and four" beat had been around since the 1940s, and was used by Rhythm & Blues artists like Louis Jordan & Big Joe Turner. Theophilus Beckford is considered by many to have recorded the first Ska tune, "Easy Snapping", in 1959. The recording was produced by Lloyd "Matador" Daley, and arranged by Ernest Ranglin.

Cluet Johnson AKA "Clue J" was important to the development of Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's desire in the late 1950s to establish a distinctive Jamaican musical sound. Clue J's distinctive stage greeting - skavoovie, lead some to define this as the root of the term Ska.

The first Ska song to hit outside of Jamaica was Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop" (1964 Island). Sir Lord Comic's "The Great Wuga Wuga" (1967 WIRL(JA)), a musical advertisement for his sound system, was one of the last great Ska tunes.

The Skatalites, who truly defined the various Ska-era styles, were ubiquitous in the mid-60s, but only held together for about 14 months (1964-65). The original Skatalites were jazzmen in the 1940s & 1950s, bringing the influence of big-band, bebop & the Blue Note sound to the new Jamaican dance sound. Reforming in the 1980s they continue to excite audiences worldwide even though some of the original members have recently passed on.

Since the 1960s Ska has been adapted and revived in many forms, and continues to be popular around the world.

Steady Rocking

Rock SteadyWhen ska began its change into the more sophisticated-sounding Rock Steady during the mid-1960s singers came into their own. While the tempo remained about the same Rock Steady carried a relaxed rhythmic density.

In Rock Steady the guitar only strums on beats 2 & 4, and the bass guitar emphasizes beats 1 & 3.

Drums are less prominent in Rock Steady as their rhythmic role was being taken over by the bass guitar. Drums provided accents, or were inaudible. Less predominant horns and less-rigid beat offered more vocal possibilities. Rock Steady was perfect for romantic group vocals.

The best examples of Rock Steady were recorded for producer Duke Reid. The studio band at Reid's Bond Street studio, the famed Treasure Isle Studio, was made up of the best of the best. Led by Tommy McCook, The Supersonics featured drummers Arkland "Drumbago" Parks and Hugh Malcolm, and guitarists Ernest Ranglin and Lynn Taitt.

Rock Steady lived a far longer life than the three years usually attributed to it (1966-1968), and it still forms the foundation of new riddims.

Say What You're Saying

By 1969 the new, enduring sound of Reggae (often spelled Reggay in the early years) had established itself. Reggae is closer to the chanting, meditative Nyabinghi sound, and lends itself to musical meditiation. The Rock Steady years brought the bass to prominence. The strength of the booming bass line continues in Reggae. Jamaicans have always been fond of the bass sound, as seen in mento music. Reggae takes it to higher heights. It is the "riddim" that makes the song, and results in the versions.

Reggae Recipe

Blackheart ManLike most popular music of the western world, Reggae is played in 4/4 time - 4 beats to a bar of 4. The strongly felt beats, or downbeats, are beats 2 & 4, opposite to most pop music. Some claim that this has made Reggae's acceptance difficult in North America (leaden 1 & 3 feet?)!

The One Drop style is defined by the drumming pattern. With the expectation of the bass drum hitting on beats 1 & 3, the "one" is "drop"ped. There's much more to it though. The snare may emphasize the 3rd beat. The bass may emphasize beat 1 with a strong note, but also often misses the first beat too. The high hat may emphasize the 1st beat. By this definition, Ska must be considered the original "one drop" rhythm.

Rockers is a style of Reggae beat that originated in the mid-1970s. Unlike the earlier "one drop" style which has the bass drum play on the 3rd beat of every measure, in a rockers beat the bass drum plays on all four beats of the measure, like the bass drum in a disco beat. In fact, this beat is probably influenced by the sound of disco music.

One drop bass drum pattern: 1  2  3  4
Rockers bass drum pattern:  1  2  3  4
                            ^  ^  ^  ^

The term Rockers came to be a generic term for 1970s reggae, partly due to the emphatic nature of the term.

By 1970 the early, jumpy Reggae was replaced by slower rhythms that better suited the lyrics that were surfacing - lyrics of oppression and sufferation.

Liveth and Reigneth

Ethiopian FlagRastafari has always been strongly linked to Reggae, making the music important socio-politically as well as culturally. Rastafari have sighted Jah since the late 1930s, but came to the world's notice in the 1970s through Bob Marley's righteous music.

Rastas share the belief that Africa is their homeland, and that, through repatriation, they will escape the Western Babylon. Rasta is not a church. It is more a core of spiritual and cultural beliefs open to a variety of interpretations.

Learn more about Rastafari.

Version City

Jamaican music has changed considerably over the past 40 or so years, stretching forth in many directions, absorbing other sounds, and influencing many.  These are the many shoots of the Reggae root.

Dub It

King Tubby wearing crown (B&W)Dub music is the result of the engineer restructuring the sound on the mixing board, melding soundboard effects with spacey blendings of large and small portions of the original track.  King Tubby was and is the monarch of Dub.

By the late 1960s most Jamaican 45s had a single on the A-side and an instrumental version (sans vocal track) on the B-side.  King Tubby, while working at Duke Reid's Treasure Isle studios, began adding, subtracting, filering, reverbrating and echoing, one, some or all of the original recording's tracks.  As studios ability to record more individual tracks grew dub engineers were able to achieve finer control over their musical concoctions.

Reggae for Lovers

The term Lover's Rock, which originated in British media in the 1970s, describes songs that do not reflect the culturally-reflective sound of many Reggae recordings.  Early representative singers include John Holt & Ken Boothe.  In the 1980s Gregory Isaacs came to define the style.  Not only is the subject matter different.  Lover's Rock sounds beautiful and lush.  Many British recordings are complemented by strings.

My Sound Stands Alone

Deejays speak their lyrics rhythmically, rather than sing them.  Singjays like Eek-A-Mouse mix the styles.  [More to come.]

Word Sound 'ave Powa

The sounds and rhythm of the words are expressed through Dub Poetry all come from the root.  [More to come.]

Ina De Dance

Dancehall, Ragga and Jungle music are the latest trends in the everchanging Jamaican sound experience. The introduction of digital musical equipment in the mid 1980s drove some of these developments.


Movement of Jah People

Africa & FaceThe emigration of Jamaicans and other West Indians to Europe and North America has both spread the vibe and blended other musical ideas to Reggae. London, England; New York, USA and Toronto, Canada have been popular destinations for Jamaican emigrees since World War II. In these, and many other places over the years, Reggae has developed from a "memory of Yard" to a musical form interpreted by singers and players from many roots.

All in all, Reggae has exerted an international musical and social impact remarkable for a relatively small nation like Jamaica - The Loudest Island in the World.

BooksReggae Readings

Chapters.caMany good books have been written about Reggae and related subjects. The following "Books 'bout Reggae" take a fairly thorough look at Jamaican music, from a few different perspectives. They all address the developments in Jamaican music over the past 40+ years. Listings are alphabetic by Title.

To order any book on-line from click on the book's cover picture.


Reggae Island: Jamaican Music in the Digital Age

"Reggae Island: Jamaican Music in the Digital Age" by Brian Jahn & Tom Weber (1998, Da Capo Press, Paperback, 254 Pages, ISBN 0-306-80853-6). Over 50 contemporary reggae artists (including Buju Banton, Shabba Ranks, Tony Rebel, Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer, Judy Mowatt, Oku Onuora & Junior Reid) and producers, from Cultural Roots to Dancehall, present their views on the state of Reggae in the early 90s, its developments since Bob Marley's death, and the directions it is evolving in. More than 150 of Brian Jahn's photographs grace its pages. Originally published in Jamaica in 1992.

Reggae Routes: Story Of Jamaican Music

"Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music" by Kevin O'Brien Chang & Wayne Chen (1998, Temple University Press, Paperback, 256 Pages, ISBN 1-56639-629-8). Two Jamaicans take a developmental approach to their study of Reggae music - what they "born and grow wit'". In describing the development of the music, they identify the most popular artists and songs of the times, and higlight the issues that influenced the music. The book also contains historical radio charts, and the authors own All-Time Top 100.

Reggae  The Rough Guide

"Reggae The Rough Guide" by Steve Barrow & Peter Dalton (1997, Rough Guides, Paperback, 395 Pages, ISBN 1-85828-247-0). Barrow & Dalton take a chronological approach to the study of reggae's origins in the 1950s, and its progression and development into an international musical force. There are chapters on Reggae in Britain, the USA and Africa. The book also contains more than 1000 CD and vinyl recommendations. The authors have been with the music for over 20 years. Steve Barrow runs the Blood & Fire(UK) re-issue label.

Virgin Encyclopedia Of Reggae

"The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae" by Colin Larkin (1998, Virgin Books, Paperback, 352 Pages, ISBN 0-7535-0242-9). Larkin takes an encyclopedic approach, providing easy access to information on prominent artists, groups and those who influenced the music's development. The first edition is expansive, but misses a few people that will hopefully be remembered in a future edition. Includes a Recommended Listening list and Bibliography. All entries were created from The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, first published by Colin Larkin in 1992.


Catch a Fire:The Life of Bob Marley

"Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley" by Timothy White (1995 Revised, Henry Holt, Paperback, 496 Pages, ISBN 0805011528). "Catch A Fire" chronicles the life and career of Bob Marley and the milieu that shaped his spiritual and political beliefs. Of the many books on Marley "Catch A Fire" provides one of the fullest biographies. This is as much a book about Jamaica and its culture as it is about one Jamaican's life. Includes a detailed discography for individual Wailers' members. Originally published in 1983 the revised edition adds information on Jamaica's troubled music business.

Last updated: 13 Nov 2004| The contents of this page are © 1997-2004 Nicky Dread.

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