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A brief summary of Jamaican music

by Piero Scaruffi
excerpted from The History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


Jamaica: the mento

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

(See Background: The 20th Century)

The first Jamaican recording studio opened in 1951 and recorded "mento" music, a fusion of European and African folk dance music. The island was awash in rhythm'n'blues records imported by the so called "sound systems", eccentric traveling dance-halls run by no less eccentric disc-jockeys such as Clement Dodd (the "Downbeat") and Duke Reid (the "Trojan"). The poor people of the Jamaican ghettos, who could not afford to hire a band for their parties, had to content themselves with these "sound systems". The "selectors", the Jamaican disc-jockeys who operated those sound systems, became the real entertainers. The selector would spin the records and would "toast" over them. The art of "toasting", that usually consisted in rhyming vocal patterns and soon evolved in social commentary, became as important as the music that was being played.

In 1954 Ken Khouri started Jamaica's first record label, "Federal Records". He inspired Reid and Dodd, who began to record local artists for their sound system. Towards the end of the 1950s, amateurs began to form bands that played Caribbean music and New Orleans' rhythm'n'blues, besides the local mento. This led to the "bluebeat" groups, which basically were Jamaica's version of the New Orleans sound. They usually featured saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, drums and bass.

Soon the bass became the dominant instrument, and the sound evolved into the "ska". The "ska" beat had actually been invented by Roscoe Gordon, a Memphis pianist, with No More Doggin' (1951). Ska songs boasted an upbeat tempo, a horn section, Afro-American vocal harmonies, jazzy riffs and staccato guitar notes.

Ska

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(See The Age of Revivals)

Theophilus Beckford cut the first "ska" record, Easy Snapping, in 1959, but Prince Buster (Cecil Campbell), owner of the sound system "Voice of the People", was the one who, around 1961, defined ska's somatic traits once and forever (he and his guitarist Jah Jerry).

The Wailers, featuring the young Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, slowed down the beat in Simmer Down (1963). Millie Small's My Boy Lollipop (1964) was the first worldwide ska hit. The charismatic leaders of the ska movement were the Skatalites, a group of veteran ex-jazzmen led by saxophonist Tommy McCook and featuring virtuoso trombonist Don Drummond and tenor saxophonist Rolando Alphonso, that formally existed only between 1964 and 1965 (Ball O' Fire, 1965; Phoenix City, 1966; the instrumental Guns Of Navarone, 1967), but ska's star was Desmond Dekker (Dacres), whose Israelites (1968) launched the even faster "poppa-top", and whose 007 Shanty Town (1967) and Rude Boy Train fueled the mythology of the "rude boy". Ska music was relatively serene and optimist, a natural soundtrack to that age of peace and wealth, somewhat akin to the music of the "swinging London".

Jamaica had become an independent country in 1962, but social problems had multiplied. During the mid Sixties, ska music evolved into "rock steady", a languid style, named after Alton Ellis' hit Rock Steady (1966), that emphasized sociopolitical themes, adopted electric instruments, replaced the horns with the guitars, and promoted the bass to lead instrument (virtually obliterating the drums). In other words, ska mutated under the influence of soul music. Rock steady was identified with the crowd of young delinquents (the "rude boys") who mimicked the British "mods" and the American "punks". Its generational anthems were Judge Dread (1967) by Prince Buster, John Holt's The Tide Is High (1966) by the Paragons, Rivers Of Babylon (1969) by the Melodians. The music took the back seat to the vocal harmonies. This helped bring about the supremacy of vocal groups: Wailers, Paragons, Maytals (the new name of the Vikings of the ska hit Halleluja, 1963), Pioneers, Melodians, Heptones, etc.

Reggae

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

(See Re-alignment)

The word "reggae" was coined around 1960 in Jamaica to identify a "ragged" style of dance music, that still had its roots in New Orleans rhythm'n'blues. However, reggae soon acquired the lament-like style of chanting and emphasized the syncopated beat. It also made explicit the relationship with the underworld of the "Rastafarians" (adepts of a millenary African faith, revived Marcus Garvey who advocated a mass emigration back to Africa), both in the lyrics and in the appropriation of the African nyah-bingi drumming style (a style that mimicks the heartbeat with its pattern of "thump-thump, pause, thump-thump"). Compared with rock music, reggae music basically inverted the role of bass and guitar: the former was the lead, the latter beat the typical hiccupping pattern. The paradox of reggae, of course, is that this music "unique to Jamaica" is actually not Jamaican at all, having its foundations in the USA and Africa.

An independent label, Island, distributed Jamaican records in the UK throughout the 1960s, but reggae became popular in the UK only when Prince Buster's Al Capone (1967) started a brief "dance craze". Jamaican music was very much a ghetto phenomenon, associated with gang-style violence, but Jimmy Cliff's Wonderful World Beautiful People (1969) wed reggae with the "peace and love" philosophy of the hippies, an association that would not die away. In the USA, Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine (1967) was the first reggae hit by a pop musician. Shortly afterwards, Johnny Nash's Hold Me Tight (1968) propelled reggae onto the charts. Do The Reggay (1968) by Toots (Hibbert) And The Maytals was the record that gave the music its name. Fredrick Toots Hibbert's vocal style was actually closer to gospel, as proved by their other hits (54-46, 1967; Monkey Man, 1969; Pressure Drop, 1970).

A little noticed event would have far-reaching consequences: in 1967, the Jamaican disc-jockey Rudolph "Ruddy" Redwood had begun recording instrumental versions of reggae hits. The success of his dance club was entirely due to that idea. Duke Reid, who was now the owner of the Trojan label, was the first one to capitalize on the idea: he began releasing singles with two sides: the original song and, on the back, the instrumental remix. This phenomenon elevated the status of dozens of recording engineers.

Reggae music was mainly popularized by Bob Marley (1), first as the co-leader of the Wailers, the band that promoted the image of the urban guerrilla with Rude Boy (1966) and that cut the first album of reggae music, Best Of The Wailers (1970); and later as the political and religious (rasta) guru of the movement, a stance that would transform him into a star, particularly after his conversion to pop-soul melody with ballads such as Stir It Up (1972), I Shot The Sheriff (1973) and No Woman No Cry (1974).

Among the reggae vocal groups, the Abyssinians' Satta Massa Gana (1971) is representative of the mood of the era.

In 1972 reggae became a staple of western radio stations thanks to the film The Harder They Come.

Dub

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More and more studio engineers were re-mixing B-sides of reggae 45 RPM singles, dropping out the vocals and emphasizing the instrumental texture of the song. The purpose was to allow disc-jockeys to "toast" over the record. Engineers became more and more skilled at refining the instrumental textures, especially when they began to employ sophisticated studio devices. Eventually, "dub" became an art on its own. The first dub singles appeared in 1971, but the man generally credited with "inventing" the genre is Osbourne Ruddock, better known as King Tubby (2), a recording engineer who in 1970 had accidentally discovered the appeal of stripping a song of its vocal track, and who engineered the first dub record, Carl Patterson's Psalm Of Dub (1971). When he got together with producer Lee "Scratch" Perry, Blackboard Jungle (1973) was born: the first stereo "dub" album. It was a Copernican revolution: the engineer and the producer had become more important than the composer. It also marked the terminal point of the "slowing down" of Jamaican music, a process that had led from ska to reggae to rock steady. Compared with the original, dub was like a slow-motion version. a collaboration with melodica player Augustus Pablo led to another seminal work, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown (1976).

Rainford Hugh Perry, better known as Lee "Scratch" Perry (3), who had nursed the Wailers, pretty much set the reference standard for generations to come with Double Seven (1974), the first reggae album that overdubbed synthesizers, Revolution Dub (1975) and Super Ape (1976), one of the genre's masterpieces.

Melodica virtuoso Augustus Pablo (2), aka Horace Swaby, penned the instrumental albums This Is Augustus Pablo (1973) and East of the River Nile (1977), two of the most atmospheric works of the genre.

Talk-over

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"Rapping" originated from the complementary tradition of the "talk-over". The disc-jockeys of the sound systems used to accompany the dance tracks with impromptu melodic and spoken-word vocals, often simply to add enthusiasm to the dance. This eventually became an art in itself. U-Roy (Edwart Beckford) was possibly the first great talk-over artist, the man who turned dub into a highly-effective vehicle for agit-prop messages (Dynamic Fashion Way, 1969; Runaway Girl, 1976; Wake the Town, Wear You to the Ball). Other pioneers of rapping were Dennis "Alcapone" Smith, with Forever Version (1971), Prince Jazzbo and I Roy. Big Youth (Manley Buchanan) upped the ante with his wild sociopolitical raps (S-90 Skank, 1972; The Killer, 1973; House Of Dread Locks, 1975; Every Nigger Is A Star, 1976), most effectively on Dreadlocks Dread (1975). Originally, the technique of these "toaster" consisted in remixing other people's songs, removing the original vocals, emphasizing the rhythmic base, and overdubbing their own rhyming stories on the resulting track.

The golden age of Reggae

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As reggae became a world attraction, styles multiplied and inbred with the American genres.

Burning Spear (1), the project of Rastafarian visionary Winston Rodney, unleashed the supercharged Marcus Garvey (1976), perhaps the highest artistic achievements of reggae music.

Joseph Hill's vocal trio Culture were equally passionate, and the title-track from Two Sevens Clash (1977) became the anthem of the rasta-punks and coined "rockers reggae".

Ijahman Levi (Trevor Sutherland) was perhaps the most spiritual vocalist of his generation. His songs were religious hymns (Jah Heavy Lord, 1975; I'm A Levi, 1978; Are We A Warrior, 1978).

Ex-Wailers Peter Tosh, or Winston Hubert McIntosh, crossed over into rock territory with Legalize It (1976).

Other popular classics include Junior Marvin's Police And Thieves (1976) and Gregory Isaacs' Love Is Overdue (1974).

Jamaican revival in Britain

(See British Graffiti)

Reggae and ska enjoyed a major revival in Britain during the punk age. Starting in the mid-1970s, ensembles such as Aswad, Steel Pulse, Matumbi and UB40 offered a westernized version of Jamaican music that was rather uninspired, but were lucky enough that the audience found affinities with the implicit protest themes of the political punks. At the same time, British sensations of the ska revival included Specials and Madness. British dub music was a more serious affair, and took longer to emerge. But, over the long term, it was dub music, and not ska or reggae music, that stuck around, thanks to the quality productions of Adrian Sherwood (the brain behind African Headcharge, Dub Syndicate and New Age Steppers), Jah Shaka and prolific Guyana-born Neil Fraser, better known as Mad Professor, who penned Beyond the Realms Of Dub (1982), and even Aswad's own New Chapter of Dub (1982). Artistic peaks were reached by dub pioneer and experimentalist Keith Hudson, with Pick A Dub (1976), and instrumental soundpainter Dennis Bovell (a former member of Matumbi, an engineer who coined the soul-reggae fusion called "Lovers Rock"), with Strictly Dubwise (1978), I Wah Dub (1980), probably his most intense release, and Brain Damage (1981), a cosmopolitan work that also mixed calypso, rock and funk. Linton Kwesi Johnson, a Jamaican poet living in England, transposed reggae's mood into dub-based sermons, arranged by Dennis Bovell, on the contemporary issues of the lumperproletariat. Ditto for the other poet of dub, Mutabaruka. These dub poets were as musical as their producers managed to be. Kwesi owed a lot to Bovell.

Jamaican music in the 1980s

(See The New Age and World-music)

Vocal trio Black Uhuru, supported by the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, wrapped reggae and Rastafarianism into a slick production of drum-machines and synthesizers, especially on Red (1981).

Third World offered a commercial fusion of reggae, funk and soul.

Innovators of the next generation included toaster and turntablist Yellowman (Winston Foster), a pioneer of "dancehall" (reggae music with rock drums) who established his reputation with Mister Yellowman (1982), crossover artists such as Eddy Grant, with the electronic Afro-rock-reggae-funk fusion of Walking on Sunshine (1979), Eek-a-Mouse (Ripton Joseph Hylton), who invented a unique vocal technique that harked back to the early days of toasting, as displayed on Wa Do Dem (1982), and Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell), who crafted African Anthem/ At The Control Dubwise (1979), with help from Scientist, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo and Sly & Robbie, and World War III (1981), with help from Scientist, after collaborating with the punk-rock band Clash.

As far as dub goes, King Tubby raised an entire generation of recording engineers, who went on to become innovators of Jamaican music, such as Prince Jammy (Lloyd James), who concocted the all-digital reggae Under Me Sleng Teng (1985), credited with inventing "ragga" (a fusion of reggae, rap and electronic dance music), and Scientist (Overton Brown).

Popular reggae musicians of the 1980s included Judy Mowatt, who, as a backup vocalist for Marley, was one of reggae's first female performers, and, as a soloist, crossed over into pop-soul balladry, Ivory Coast's sociopolitical bard Alpha Blondy (Kone Seydou), and David "Ziggy" Marley, son of the prophet, who sold out his father's myth to the international disco-pop crowds. Dancehall toaster Shabba Ranks (Rexton Gordon) and Shinehead (Carl Aiken) were the stars of ragga hip-hop.

The star of the 1990s was Buju Banton (Mark Anthony Myrie), revealed by Til Shiloh (1995).


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TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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