Jamaican music is world famous, not only for making you want to sing along and shake your hips, but also for being a powerful tool for ‘change.’ Although Reggae is commonly used to define Jamaica’s music, the island’s traditional or folk music is rich – heavy with the substance of African rhythms and collective experiences – and has continued to evolve into an extraordinary legacy. Drawing from several different influences, our music reflects the tides of the time with the sounds and rhythms, each possessing its own distinctive beat.
Folk is the earliest music form in Jamaica and remains one of the most influential aspects of our heritage. Its beat shakes social barriers and unifies our nation with its intensity and ingenuity. Its power to heal, inspire and incite makes it an essential part of the Jamaican identity. The music is characterized by three main groups – tunes for work and entertainment, religious melodies, and dance music. Each group has its own harmony, but all share a commonality in the types of accompaniments used, primarily the drum and small wind and string instruments.
Towards the turn of the 20th century we soaked up calypso, tango and samba, fusing to create a vibrant Jamaican music form called Mento. Its medley of banjos, hand drums, guitars and rhumba boxes created a fascinating beat with light-hearted and often times comical lyrics.
Awaiting our Independence during the 1960s, we became saturated with optimism. Filled with high hopes and huge dreams, Ska’s buoyant jazz rhythms, though influenced by American Rhythm and Blues, became Jamaican naturalized. Everywhere you went it was ska, ska, ska! When the sound hit abroad, it spread like wild fire through London’s underground scene, scoring ‘big time’ with Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’.
The ‘giddy-up’ bug took a hiatus, the music beat slowed and a heavy bass emerged in the 1970’s. Social messages were turned into song. Dance moves became languid and ‘rude boys’ found kinship with the new sound that epitomized the times. This was Rock Steady but this epoch was transitory, for it had to make way for the inevitable scorching, rebel music – Reggae!
Reggae reverberated with the dispossessed. Jamaican legends Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Peter Tosh helped to shape the music form. The sounds dominated the recording studios, filled record shops, bellowed from sound systems and reigned supreme at street dances. Jamaicans from all walks of life descended on downtown lawns and halls and various night clubs to ‘level the vibes’.
By the late 80s into the early 90s Dancehall, an outgrowth of Reggae, emerged. Dancehall was more energetic and satirical in nature,. Hardcore lyrics toasted over computerized ‘riddims’, deejay clash (face offs), sound systems and new dance styles and fashion statements are standard trademarks. Deejays’ reputations are built on their prowess for versatile rhymes, catchy new phrases and their ability to ‘ride’ a riddim. Popular deejay acts ‘King’ Yellowman, Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Lady Saw, Capleton, and Bounty Killa attained celebrity status and became the keepers of young Jamaica’s hype.
Reggae remains popular on the international scene from roots rock to dancehall. It has gained success abroad and has been credited for the birth of the popular American genre, ‘Hip-Hop’. Modern artistes continue to fuse the reggae rhythms with other music forms to create new sounds, infusing their messages and spreading cool island vibes.