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Do You Know that Jamaican Reggae is a Versatile Music with Different Genres? (Part 1)

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Jamaican music is known worldwide but many people are unaware of just how much this tiny island has contributed to the industry, and not just Reggae. Certain hit songs released by international artists such as Rihanna and Justin Bieber fall within the genre of Jamaican reggae/dancehall music, a sign of how our music has become mainstream. Reggae and dancehall are the most recognized genres that originated in Jamaica, however the country’s influence extends much further.

Reggae is characterized by the fusion of European and African traits, with origins in enslaved work songs – created with guitar, rumba box, bongo and banjo. Mento mixed this with satirical lyrics of everyday life and verse repetition, creating a foundation from which reggae would blossom. Reggae employs a heavy four-beat rhythm driven by drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, and the “scraper,” a corrugated stick that is rubbed by a plain stick.

Below are 8 Music Genres created & influenced by Jamaica.

Jimmy Cliff in Concert

1. Mento

Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music that predates and has greatly influenced Ska and Reggae music. It is a fusion of African and European elements, which reached peak popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. Mento typically features acoustic instruments, such as acoustic guitar, banjo, hand drums, and the rhumba box. The rhumba box carries the bass part of the music.

Mento is often confused with Calypso - a musical form that originated in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Mento and calypso are similar as they use lyrics with a humorous slant, commenting on poverty and other social issues in the islands, with sprinkles of sexual innuendos. Although the two share many similarities, they are separate and distinct musical forms.

It was not until the 1950's that the first recordings were made and many of the more popular songs were pressed by Stannley Motta and Ivan Chin. So it is difficult to find early recordings of traditional mento. To this day, Mento is still listened to in Jamaica but mostly in tourist destinations.

Lord Messam - Take Her To Jamaica (1952) Mento

2. Ska

Ska originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s. Ska came before musical styles such as Rocksteady and Reggae. It combined elements of Mento and Calypso with American Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. It separates itself from other musical genres due to its walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat. It was developed in Jamaica in the 1960s when Stranger Cole, Prince Buster, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, and Duke Reid formed sound systems to play American rhythm and blues and then began recording their own songs. In the early 1960s, Ska was the dominant musical genre of Jamaica being popular with other communities as well, including the British Community.

There are many theories about the origins of the word ska. Ernest Ranglin claimed that the term was coined by musicians to refer to the "skat! skat! skat!" scratching guitar strum. Another explanation is that at a recording session in 1959 produced by Coxsone Dodd, double bassist Cluett Johnson instructed guitarist Ranglin to "play like ska, ska, ska." Ranglin has denied this, stating "Clue couldn't tell me what to play!" Another theory is that it derives from Johnson's word skavoovie, with which he greeted his friends. Jackie Mittoo insisted that the musicians called the rhythm Staya Staya, and that it was Byron Lee who introduced the term "ska". Derrick Morgan said: "Ska is the guitar and piano making a sound, like 'ska, ska'."

The Skatalites "Have a good time" featuring Doreen Shaffer

3. Rocksteady

Rocksteady is a musical genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966. A successor to Ska and a precursor to Reggae. It differed from ska with a slowed-down beat and, often, a lack of a horn section. Rocksteady was performed by The Gaylads, The Maytals, The Heptones, Alton Ellis and The Paragons. The term rocksteady comes from a dance style that mentioned in the Alton Ellis song "Rock Steady". Dances performed to Rocksteady are less energetic than the earlier Ska dances.

Some rocksteady songs became hits outside Jamaica, as with ska, helping to secure the international base reggae music has today. Despite the name, rocksteady is not related to rock. The first international Rocksteady hit was "Hold Me Tight" released in (1968) by the American soul singer Johnny Nash. This hit reached number one in Canada.

Rocksteady uses some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), Jazz, Ska, African and Latin American drumming, and other genres. One of the most recognisable elements, as in Ska, are offbeat rhythms and staccato chords played by a guitar and piano on the offbeats of the measure.

Alton Ellis - Willow Tree

4. Roots Reggae

Reggae music emerged in the late 1960s with a strong influence from mento, ska and rocksteady. It has become the genre of music that most people identify with the music of Jamaica. The genre features heavy bass and drum beats that early singers used to perform ballads with social and political commentary.

Reggae, particularly roots reggae, was influenced lyrically and musically by Rastafarianism. It included nyabinghi drumming and Pan-African lyrics re-injecting the music. Important figures in reggae music include Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Reggae gained international attention when Bob Marley and the Wailers Band released the Exodus album in 1977. Today, reggae music is a major influencer for many newer genres, with major artists releasing recordings with reggae undertones. The genre has a steady following on almost every continent with thousands attending reggae festivals every year.

Bob Marley & the Wailers - So Much Things To Say


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Jacqueline Cameron

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.

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