The Development of Jamaican Reggae Music: From 1951 to 2021 - Mento to Dancehall
Updated: Jul 5
Jamaican Culture; Jamaican Music; Jamaica Attractions; Jamaican People; Famous Jamaicans
Reggae is especially popular through the international fame of Bob Marley. Jamaican music's influence on music styles in other countries includes the practice of toasting, which was brought to New York City and evolved into rapping. British genres such as lovers rock, jungle music and grime are also influenced by Jamaican music.
The term reggae denotes the modern popular music of Jamaica and its diaspora. While sometimes used in a broad sense to refer to most types of popular Jamaican dance music, the term reggae more properly denotes a particular music style. This music style evolved from traditional Jamaican mento as well as American jazz and rhythm and blues, especially the New Orleans R&B, and evolved out of the earlier genres ska and rocksteady. Reggae usually relates news, social gossip, and political commentary. It is instantly recognizable as it has a heavy bass and strong second and fourth beat.
Reggae went international through popular musicians such as Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. In 2018, UNESCO added the "reggae music of Jamaica" to its "Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."
Listen to Jamaican music for its soul - love, joy, anger, pain, commentary… - as reflected in the lyrics and the arrangements. Reggae is indeed a powerful force to bring about change and has done so in Jamaica and the world. Listen to the different music genres of Jamaica and hear the common thread throughout and let me know which genre(s) you like the best. There are markets for the different types of Jamaican music – foreigners, tourists, visitors, and the Jamaican Diaspora.
I grew up through a number of these music genres and can recall the sweet songs, the protest songs, the dances, the commentary… it has been not only fun, but also a learning experience. You are welcome to listen to these selections below or visit Jamaica to see how our music has influenced our culture and vice versa. Reggae is indeed a powerful force to bring about change and has done so in Jamaica and the world - ONE LOVE!
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.
Lord Composer - "Hill and Gully Rider" (1951)
Lord Composer (1924 -1990) was a Jamaican mento artist. Lord Composer and His Silver Seas Hotel Orchestra recorded "Gal A Gully"/"Matilda" and "Hill & Gully Ride"/"Mandeville Road". Composer's choice of material, strong vocal and tight instrumentation make these tracks enjoyable. This extremely popular pair of two-song medleys are early mento classics.
He appeared on several singles in the 1960s on the Kalypso and Studio One labels. He also recorded an LP worth of material that can be bought today. It's interesting to note that despite his chosen name, this artist composed very few of the songs he recorded!
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.
The Wailing Wailers - "Simmer Down" (1964)
In 1964 the Wailers consisted of a five-piece harmony group comprising Neville ‘Bunny Wailer’ Livingston, Winston ‘Peter Tosh’ Mackintosh, Robert ‘Bob’ Marley, Junior Braithwaite, and Beverley Kelso (who had replaced Cherry Green aka Ermine Bramwell). They were trained in voice control, harmonies, and stagecraft in the “government yards in Trench Town” by successful singer and songwriter Joe Higgs, of Higgs & Wilson. Their first records were done by the legendary producer Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, who founded one of Jamaica’s most renowned recording studios and record labels in the late 1950s. The label helped to pioneer ska, rocksteady, dub, and dancehall, and discovered and released music from The Skatalites, Delroy Wilson, Jackie Mittoo, The Maytals, Jackie Opel, The Gaylads, Alton Ellis and, of course, The Wailers.
The first song The Wailers did for Studio One under the tutorship of Joe Higgs was the exciting ska tune “Simmer Down”, which became a number one hit in Jamaica in February 1964. That song, directed to the ‘Rude Boys’ of the ghettos of Jamaica at the time, sending them a message to cool down or “Simmer Down” with all the violence and crime going on in Kingston. This song rounded off their 1965 released debut album “The Wailing Wailers”, which now – for the very first time – gets a CD reissue with the original track listing and artwork. During their collaboration with ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, the Wailers recorded every different kind of music the producer requested of them. So the Wailers recorded traditional mento, calypso, gospel, folk, doo wop harmony, soul and pop covers, Christmas songs as well as their own material.
Then, in 1965, Beverly Kelso left The Wailers. The other four members of the group would take turns on the lead vocal parts. Listen to the 1965 released single “Lonesome Feeling” and hear how the vocals of the six singers are bouncing around, which – although it seemingly creates some chaos – makes the song so special. Also included here is the awesome “Love & Affection” and a great early version of “One Love”, their most famous song with inspiring lyrics, played and sung and loved all over the world.
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 was 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.
Alton Ellis - "You've Made Me So Very Happy" (1970)
Alton Ellis, popularly known as the “Godfather of Rocksteady," was one of Jamaica’s most popular singers whose music, though not limited to rocksteady, was reflective of that era. His song, “Come Do The Rocksteady,” was the first to include the word rocksteady and as such has historical value in the development of Jamaican music. He had a strong fan base in Jamaica and the Jamaican immigrant community in Britain, and unlike other ska and rocksteady artistes at the time he achieved success on the international scene.
Born in Kingston in 1944, he was raised in Trench Town. In 1959 he formed a duo with his friend Eddie Perkins and they made their first recording, “Muriel.” Produced by Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, of the legendary Studio One, the song was an immediate success that topped the Jamaican charts.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he made many hits with the Studio One and Treasure Aisle studios. With Studio One, he made songs such as “A Fool,” one of many songs inspired by the stormy relationship with his first wife, Pearl. “I’m Still in Love” was cut in 1967 and proved timeless as evidenced by the new version released by Sean Paul and Sasha in 2003.
In 1970, he scored big with his rendition of “You've Made Me So Very Happy,” and the following year, “Deliver Us.” By 1973, Ellis had moved to the United Kingdom, where he continued to record. Although based in the UK, he continued to make notable recordings in Jamaica. In 1974, Ellis received the Order of Distinction from the Jamaican Government in recognition of his contribution to the island’s popular culture. He died on October 11, 2008.
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 employed to perform ballads with social and political commentary.
Marcia Griffiths - Electric Boogie (The Electric Slide) (Promo) (HQ) (1990) (1982)
The longest, hardest, and most consistently working artist in the history of the Jamaican Music Industry is the Empress of Reggae music, the most Honorable Marcia Griffiths, Order of Distinction, first Lady of Song, Female Vocalist Supreme. Marcia Griffiths has been performing and recording as a top-class artist for four decades. She says, “I started singing professionally as a vocalist in 1964, for Byron Lee and the Dragonaires band.” Her recording years started soon after, at Coxsone Dodd - Studio One where she recorded her first hit “Feel Like Jumping."
She has hit high points internationally as a soloist and as a duo with Bob Andy, as Bob and Marcia. She has toured the world as a member of the I-threes with Bob Marley and the Wailers. Subsequently as a soloist she hit the Billboard chart with the “Electric Boogie Song” and created a world class dance, the Electric Slide. This super star has been recording and performing ceaselessly. Throughout her career, Marcia Griffiths has demonstrated the same level of performance she has been known for over the years, as both a soloist and a member of different groups. She displayed, in combination with Reggae rapper Cutty Ranks, on their duet of “Fire Burning”, all the zeal and elements that go into dancehall music. Marcia exhibits the same exuberance when performing her international crossover hit “Electric Boogie.”
Marcia Llyneth Griffiths was born on November 23, 1949 to Joseph and Beatrice Griffiths. The family hailed from a poor section of West Kingston, but as bad as things were, Marcia considered those days glorious, because there was always one thing in abundance - one thing that made them the wealthiest family in the world - one thing that no one could take from them... Love!
The driving force of the Reggae Empress is fueled by her inner desire to serve the people of the world with sweet reggae music. She said, “Music alone shall live, and it’s not only for the money, but the satisfaction I get from doing the work that I love, that is what really keeps me going everyday.”
Often referred to as reggae's rebellious cousin, dancehall music emerged as an under-ground genre in the late 1970s. Sound systems began stringing up on street corners attracting large crowds of locals, resembling a dance hall, hence its name. Artistes would toast (like rap) over digital riddims (rhythms) as opposed to the usual playing of pre-recorded music.
The fast-paced tempo laid the foundation for a genre with dancing, sexuality, and "gangster life" at the heart of it. The dancehall market was initially concentrated in Jamaica especially for the members of the inner-city communities. It was often seen as very coarse and raunchy with no apologies.
Lady G - "Nuff Respect" (1988)
Whenever Lady G performs, one song is a certainty for the playlist — “Nuff Respect.” Recorded in 1988, it is a bona fide anthem, dancehall’s version of Helen Reddy’s, "I Am Woman." Lady G reflected on the song that called for gender equality in a male-dominated genre. “At di time there were a lot of songs coming out degrading women and disrespecting them. I thought it was di right time to put out a song uplifting women, give dem self-value, mek dem know dat wi worth more than dat,” she said.
Born Janet Fyffe, Lady G is the daughter of Kenroy Fyffe, a singer who has recorded and toured with roots-reggae greats, The Congos. She began recording in 1987 and recalls co-writing “Nuff Respect” with friend Paul Jackson while hanging out at the Rio Cobre River in her hometown of De La Vega City, Spanish Town. When the single was released, there was a spattering of female deejays in the dancehall. Lady G’s contemporaries included Sister Charmaine, Lady Junie and Shelly Thunder. They were preceded in the early 1980’s by Sister Carol and Sister Nancy. Dancehall in the 1980’s was rife with ‘slackness’ songs by Yellow Man, General Echo and later Shabba Ranks.
"Nuff Respect" launched Lady G’s career in a big way. She had two massive hits in Legal Rights” and "Round Table Talk," with her mentor Papa San, and performed on major shows. The hit, "Man a Bad Man" was used in the action film "Third World Cop." Her career shaped up to be nothing short of iconic.
The veteran deejay, who lives in New Jersey, believes conditions are much more favorable today for women in dancehall/reggae. “A little disrespect will go on in between but they (men) look at us more seriously. Not like sex symbols like before,” said Lady G.
An effortless storyteller with an ability to turn any situation into a valuable lesson, Lady G has an instinctive gift of creating message music, and she has made a great impression in the dancehall arena since her first foray in the 1980s. Lady G has emerged as one of Jamaica’s most positive, candid lyrical voices with songs that frequently explore: creating a strong identity: taking control in a relationship; and finding solutions, and self.
“I think before anything else; I am true to what I do, and I love what I do. The messages I send always create a positive energy within the people who love my music,” Lady G said about being a consistently sought-after female artiste. “Jamaica is the grassroots of dancehall and reggae music, so on the topic of finding success in the international music space, being a born-and-bred Jamaican helped. The world looks up to us and respects our levels of creativity. I take great pleasure when on a show, for example, in Europe, and they announce, ‘out of Kingston or Spanish Town, Jamaica’, even now while living in America.”
#Jamaica #Jamaicasonice #JamaicanCulture #JamaicanMusic #JamaicaAttractions #MusicGenres #JamaicanDance #JamaicanMusicProducers #Reggaemonth #February #Reggae #Mento #Ska #Rocksteady #Dancehall #Folk #LordComposer #TheWailingWailers #AltonEllis #MarciaGriffiths #LadyG #Visitors #Travelers #Tourists #JamaicanDiaspora #Fun #Onelove
Please like and share this story.
If you liked this story, join our email list to have the blog delivered to your inbox weekly.
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.