Reggae music originated in Jamaica and has grown into a world-wide sensation. It reflects a fusion of different musical periods and types such as ska, rocksteady, mento, and jazz. Reggae can be spiritual, political, militant, hopeful and even romantic. Reggae’s presence can still be felt today, influencing genres such as punk, hip hop and rock through artists such as Eric Clapton, Sean Paul, Rihanna, Protoje and Chronixx.
I can recall the development of reggae as a child growing up from the stage of ska through rocksteady to reggae. It was an experience – learning the new dances and songs. I even attended a Bob Marley concert in Toronto while a university student in Ontario. Now that was magic!
1. Origin of the Word Reggae
It is believed that the word “reggae” comes from a Jamaican slang term “rege-rege,” which means “ragged” or “raggedy” because it is a mix of other styles sewn together.Other people, including Bob Marley, claim the term “reggae” either comes from the Latin “Regi,” meaning “to the King” or Spanish for “the king’s music.” This explanation emphasizes the religious undertones of reggae.
2. Early Influences
As a British colony and important trading post in the Caribbean, Jamaica is something of a cultural crossroads. Besides their own folk styles, the locals would have heard English gospel music, sea shanties, calypso, and meringue from other Caribbean islands, even jazz, and R&B from the United States. All would go on to influence reggae music.
One popular style of Jamaican music was called mento. At the start of the 20th century, Jamaican musicians started making a calypso-influenced style which made light of local issues and events. Instruments were often whatever was lying around. The first recorded mento song, “Mento Merengue Meringue” was played on harmonica, coconut grater, and homemade wooden trumpet.
4. Jamaican Independence
Jamaica gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. This led to a period of economic turmoil, but also a cultural renaissance, especially when it came to music. Local musicians, producers, and DJs were matching their country’s new-found independence with their own. They founded record labels and developed new styles of music that would be associated with the country forever.
5. Ska to Rocksteady
Around the time Jamaica gained its independence, the most popular style of music in Jamaica was ska. An upbeat instrumental music, ska borrowed from American r&b styles while emphasizing an off-beat rhythm. As the Jamaican economy worsened, many ska musicians started slowing down the pace and singing over the music to address social issues. This became known as “Rocksteady.”
6. Rocksteady to Reggae
Rocksteady musicians had slowed ska down and directed it to more socio-political themes. They also changed the instrumentation, shifting away from the upbeat horns of ska to the guitar, bass, drums, and organs common to British and American rock bands. As the rocksteady musicians experimented with sound and turned increasingly to the Rastafarian religion, rocksteady evolved into reggae.
7. The Sound
Reggae gets its distinctive sound from placing its rhythmic accent on the off-beat, called “skanking.” Also important is that in reggae, the role of the bass and guitar are essentially reversed, with the bass playing a melodic lead line and the guitar providing rhythm. The lyrics are usually delivered in a Jamaican dialect called patois.
8. The Pioneers
Just as no one can agree where the term reggae comes from, no one can agree what the first reggae song was. In 1968, Toots & the Maytals recorded their song “Do the Reggay,” which some claim is the first named reggae song. Yet, others have argued that a song recorded one year earlier, The Pioneers’ “Long Shot (Bus’ Me Bet),” was the first true reggae song. The song, about a racehorse, stayed on the Jamaican national charts for weeks and bore all the musical hallmarks of what would later be called reggae.
9. Bob Marley
It seems the only undisputed fact about reggae is that Bob Marley is the most important and influential reggae musician. Marley was raised in the desperately poor Trenchtown neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica.
10. The Wailers
In 1962, Marley, and his friends Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh formed the group The Wailing Wailers. By 1964, they had reached the top of the Jamaican national charts with their song “Simmer Down,” which sold 80,000 copies. With time, their music shifted from ska to reggae, from upbeat party lyrics to socially and spiritually conscious lyrics. Though Tosh and Wailer would eventually leave the group, The Wailers remained Marley’s backing band throughout his life.
11. An Interesting Character
Although most of the attention falls to Marley when it comes to reggae, Peter Tosh is an interesting character, with a prolific music career to match. When he was young, Tosh was mesmerized by other guitar players, and learned by mimicking their movements on a guitar he built himself from a sardine can. Later in life, he became known for his M16 rifle-shaped guitar, as well his avid unicycling habit.
Bob Marley and the Wailers introduced Rastafarianism as a major subject and theme reggae music. Rastafarianism grew out of Christianity and the philosophies of black activist Marcus Garvey. In reaction to a quote from Garvey, Rastafarians identify Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as a messianic figure. They believed his crowning would lead to their release from tyranny and oppression, and bring them closer to their god, Jah.
13. Dance to the Music… No, Not That Music!
In 1973, Bob Marley’s band The Wailers were fired in the middle of a tour, when they were opening for Sly & the Family Stone. It was because they were much more popular with audiences than the main act.
14. Reggae in Mainstream
Reggae officially reached mainstream white audiences in 1974, when British rock star Eric Clapton recorded a cover of the Wailers’ tune “I Shot the Sheriff.” The song was a massive hit in the US and UK and brought international attention to Marley.
Jimmy Cliff had been a popular singer in Jamaica and was notable for his sunny, peaceful attitude. In 1973, Cliff starred in The Harder They Come, the first feature film ever produced in Jamaica. In it, Cliff plays a young man who dreams of becoming a reggae star, but finds himself at war with corrupt music producers, drug traffickers, and police. While this character was quite different from Cliff’s public persona, the movie became a cult favorite, only feeding reggae-fever.
15. Reggae Sumfest
Every July, Reggae Sumfest is held in Montego Bay, Jamaica. It is the biggest gathering of reggae acts and fans in the world, with an estimated 30,000 people coming to share the vibes. Held since 1993, Sumfest still hosts dozens of reggae acts every year. It has however expanded to include some of the biggest musical acts from around the world.
The staging of Reggae Sumfest 2020 was cancelled due to the global pandemic. Like most major entertainment events around the world this was shocking, and very disappointing to fans. Sumfest had been staged every Summer for the past 27 years was not happening. Reggae Sumfest 2020, however happened as a virtual event with Facebook Music and Instagram carrying the festival.
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Jacqueline is a writer/editor with decades of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to reporting. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief writer for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. She is a trained engineer and musician and loves to see people transformed through her work.