A brief history of Pop Music

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")

World Music on the Rise


Jamaica: the Mento

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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.

A few years later a Jamaican singer named Theophilus Beckford cut the first "ska" record, Easy Snapping (1959), and the word "reggae" was coined (1960) to identify a "ragged" style of dance music, with its roots in New Orleans' rhythm'n'blues.

In 1930 Ethiopia was the only black African country to be still free from European white colonial occupation. That year prince Ras Tafari Makonnen ascended to the throne, assuming the title of Emperor Halie Selassie I. While his "empire" was short-lived (Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia just five years later), the widely-covered story of his coronation and of his claim to be the incarnation of the Judaistic-Christian god Yahweh inspired blacks living outside Africa. The Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey had already started an Afro-nationalist movemement in Jamaica and in 1927 had prophesize the coming of the messiah of God (called "Jah" in Ethiopia). Leonard Howell's libel "The Promise Key" (1935), written just before Mussolini overthrew the "emperor", identified the messiah with the "Ras Tafari". Rastafari therefore became both a religious and a political movement in Jamaica, paralleling the purely secular "Black Power" movement of the USA. Reggae music became its soundtrack.

Ghana: the Highlife

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Ghana, the first African country to win independence from a European colonizer (in 1957) and the economic miracle of Africa at the end of the century, was the birthplace of highlife music. Originally the name given by the blacks to the music of the white social elite, it evolved from the fusion of rural "palm-wine" music for guitar, percussion and concertina, church music, Latin ballroom music, military music and African tribal music. The black bands that used to play at parties of white people started playing also for black people, and their sound became more and more Africanized. The guitar-based fusion was mature in the 1930s, when it was interpreted for the masses by Jacob Sam (his Yaa Amponsah dates from 1928), heavily influenced by the Cuban orchestras. In the 1950s, especially after independence, highlife bandleaders Emmanuel Tettah Mensah (leader since 1948 of the twelve-piece orchestra Tempos, the charismatic archetype of the highlife dance band), King Bruce, Jerry Hansen, Stan Plange, E.K. Nyame, leader of the most popular guitar-band, drummer Guy Warren, Nigerian trumpeter Victor Olaiya, Nigerian guitarist Bobby Benson, were influenced by American swing bands. The Tempos exported highlife to Nigeria in 1951, and Nigeria soon became to rival Ghana for highlife supremacy.

Congo: the Soukous

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During the 1950s, when they experienced rapid urbanization and a relatively booming economy, the two French-speaking colonies of the Congo area (capitals in Brazzaville and Kinshasa) witnessed the birth of an African version of the Cuban rumba played by small American-style orchestras (called "kasongo", "kirikiri" or "soukous") with a touch of jazz and of local attitudes: Joseph "Grand Kalle" Kabasselleh's African Jazz (that counted on vocalist Tabu Ley, guitarist "Docteur" Nico Kasanda, saxophonist Manu Dibango), Jean Serge Essous' O.K.Jazz (featuring the young Franco), Orchestre Bella Bella, etc. Each orchestra became famous for one or more "dances" that they invented. So soukous (as Ley dubbed it in 1966) is actually a history of dances, rather than one monolithic genre (Ley's definition originally applied only to a frenzied version of rumba). A guitarist named Jimmy Elenga introduced "animation": instructions yelled to the crowd in order to direct their dances. Animation eventually became part of the dance, delivering both the identity of the dance, the (ethnic) identity of the band and a (more or less subtle) sociopolitical message. As dictators seized power in both Congos, musicians emigrated to other African countries, to Europe and to the USA, thus spreading soukous around the world, while in Zaire (Congo Kinshasa) soukous bands were used for Maoist-style propaganda purposes ("l'animation politique").

A key figure was "Franco" (Francois Luambo Makiadi), the guitarist who in 1958 evolved the O.K.Jazz into the 20-member T.P.O.K.Jazz (including saxohpnist 'Verkys' Kiamanguana Mateta) and was largely responsible for the relaxed, sensual, languid version of soukous that became predominant, before the 1967 arrival of guitarist Mose Fan Fan led to a more lively sound. His collaboration with Tabu Ley, Omana Wapi (1976), contained only four lengthy dances.

Tabu Pascal (aka Tabu Ley Rochereau) formed African Fiesta in 1963 (initially with Dr Nico, who co-wrote the classic Afrika Mokili Mobimba) and then renamed it Afrisa in 1970, with vocalist Sam Mangwana and guitarist Huit-Kilos Bimwela Nseka. From the beginning, Ley played the Latin rhythms on the drums of rock music, thus merging (at least ideally) rumba and rock. His Fiesta also turned the soukous concert into a happening that was reminiscent of the sexy shows of Parisian cabarets.

South Africa: the Mbaqanga

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South Africa had a melting pot of its own. In the black urban centers where different tribes met, and met with foreign slaves, a dance style called "marabi" evolved. It was originally a humble form of music, but it became similar to the jazz music played by swing bands in the USA when it was adopted by the relatively wealthy and free blacks of Sophiatown, a suburb that had become a sort of Johannesburg's Harlem. In 1955 it was destroyed by the white racist government, an event that led to the radicalization of South African jazz music.

The most influential phenomenon in South-African music was the evolution of Zulu township music, or mbaqanga (originally the name of a soup of the 1950s), a lilting style that relies on driving rhythm. Early South-African songs include Solomon Linda's Mbube (1939), the base for The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

By the end of the 1950s South African music was on the rise. South-African composer Todd Matshikiza's musical King-Kong (1959) fused classical, jazz and African music, while Nigerian hand drumming virtuoso Babatunde Olatunji shocked the USA with Drums of Passion (1959) for percussion ensemble. (He would continue to pursue his aesthetic of drumming-induced trance with the The Invocation of 1988 and the 21-minute Cosmic Rhythm Vibrations of 1993).

Much of South-African music of the 1950s was born at the crossroads of jazz and folk music. In fact, an important moment for the emancipation of the local scene was Todd Matshikiza's musical King-Kong (1959), that exported to the USA a fusion of classical, jazz and African idioms, and that featured both trumpeter Hugh Masekela and vocalist Miriam Makeba.

Miriam Makeba, an activist in the civil-rights movement of the USA, recorded in a pop-jazz style, often accompanied by her husband Hugh Masekela.

Trumpet player Hugh Masekela (1), who had led the first jazz record of the African continent, Verse I (1960), with a sextet named the Jazz Epistles that featured pianist Dollar Brand, fused the South-African tradition of work and church songs (the South-African equivalent of the American blues and gospel) and Zulu mbaqanga rhythms with the structure of jazz and pop-jazz music, on albums such as The Lasting Impression (1965).

Brazil: Bossanova

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A major stylistic revolution took place in Brazil during the 1950s: when white young middle-class intellectuals merged a gentler, slower form of the samba with jazz music, and shifted the lead to the guitar, bossanova was born. Thus, it was a music of the bourgeoisie, not of the working class. Indeed, bossanova songs left behind the underworld of samba, where people struggled to make a living, and shifted to the world of beaches, romance and lazy bohemian life. And, in fact, bossanova soon became a favorite style of easy-listening and lounge music.

Antonio Carlos ("Tom") Jobim began a collaboration with Vinícius de Moraes when he scored the soundtrack for the other's play, Orfeu da Conceicao (1956), which included his first standard, Se Todos Fossem Iguais a Voce. After Jobim composed the classic Desafinado (1957), the two released Cancao do Amor Demais (1958), featuring Eliseth Cardoso on vocals and Joao Gilberto on guitar, which contained Jobim's Chega de Saudade, the song that established bossanova in Brazil. Jobim and Morais also wrote Garota de Ipanema (1962), which turned bossanova into a world-wide phenomenon.

The jazz world of the USA welcomed the Brazilian style on Jazz Samba (1962), a collaboration between guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz.

Other notable protagonists of bossanova were Luiz Bonfa` (Manha de Carnaval, 1958), Jorge Ben (Mais Que Nada, 1963), Sergio Mendes (the most shameless perpetrator of Brazilian easy-listening).

USA: Latin Pop

At the end of the 1950s exotic sounds were still percolating into the American psyche, with the emphasis shifting towards Latin America. Harry Belafonte's Banana Boat Song (1957) launched "calypso" in the USA, Ritchie Valens' La Bamba (1958) created a tex-mex version of rock'n'roll, the Drifters' There Goes My Baby (1959) introduced Latin rhythm to pop music, Herp Albert's instrumental Lonely Bull (1962) coined another hybrid, dubbed "ameriachi", and Jose Fernandez Diaz's Guantanamera (1963) became a folk standard.

In Cuba in 1955, Los Papines fused the violin-based music of charangas and the trumpet-based music of conjuntos, thus creating a new standard for Cuban-inspired pop music. But, as Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba (1959), the epicenter of Latin music moved to other islands and then south. Eduardo Davidson's La Pachanga (1959), recorded by Orquesta Sublime, introduced Cuba to a Colombian dance (which was confusingly called "charanga" in the USA). Charanga and pachanga became brief fads in the USA, while the "son" left Cuba and migrated to Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico had its own tradition of "bomba" and "plena", to which percussionist Rafael Cortijo, leader of a conjunto since 1954, had added trumpets and saxophones (El Bombon De Elena). His conjunto and his husky vocalist Ismael Rivera (El Nazareno, Quitate de la Via Perico), notorious for the improvised call-and-response vocals of the "sonero" tradition, harked back to the African roots of Caribbean music without any distinction between styles. Both vocally and rhythmically they created a "sauce" of Caribbean music. El Gran Combo, formed by pianist Rafael Ithier, continued Cortijo's mission in a lighter vein, with La Muerte (1962) and Ojos Chinos (1964).

In the 1960s, the Puertorican-son hybrid reached the Puertorican colony in New York. Here, the son adopted the format of the big band, as in Jimmy Sabater's Salsa y Bembe (1962) and vibraphonist Cal Tjader's Salsa del Alma (1964).

The Cuban expatriates that relocated in New York contributed greatly to the assimilation of the genre in the American culture: vocalist Celia Cruz (Burundanaga, 1956; Yerbero Moderno, 1956), flutist Jose-Antonio Fajardo (La Charanga), jazzy congueros Candido Camero and Ramon "Mongo" Santamaria (Mazacote, 1958; Afro Blue, 1959; Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man, 1963), violinist Felix "Pupi" Legarreta, who fused charanga and jazz on Salsa Nova (1962). Santamaria, who arrived in New York in 1950, paid tribute to his Cuban roots on Yambu (1958) and Mongo (1959), that were performed with other Latin percussionists.

The evolution of son continued in New York via Dominican flutist Johnny Pacheco, leader of the quintessential charanga (featuring singer Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez) but also the leader of the "Africanization" of the charanga (arrangements limited to trumpets, piano and percussion), New York's pianist Charlie Palmieri, who formed in 1959 the influential charanga Duboney (four violins and Pacheco on flute), New York's pianist Eddie Palmieri, who in 1962 pioneered "trombanga", a sound based on two trombones and a flute (in alternative to the charanga sound), New York's percussionist Ernesto "Tito" Puente (Oye Como Va, 1962), New York's drummer Ray Barretto, who experimented with rhythm'n'blues and jazz, Puertorican bongo player Roberto Roena (Mi Desengano, 1976). They all crossed over into jazz and rhythm'n'blues. Notable albums include Puente's Dance Mania (1958), Duboney's Pachanga At The Caravana Club (1959), Pablo "Tito" Rodriguez's West Side Beat (1961), Bobby Valentin's Ritmo Pa Goza (1966), Eddie Palmieri's Lo Que Traigo Es Sabroso (1964) and Superimposition (1969), Barretto's Acid (1967) and The Message (1972), Cortijo's Maquina de Tiempo (1974). Latin New York also secreted the boogaloo, a fusion of black soul music and the Cuban mambo, as in Eddie Palmieri's Ay Qye Rico (1968). New York-born Willie Colon, originally a trombonist, was the first major Puertorican star, his orchestra and his singer Hector Lavoe capable of albums such as El Malo (1967) and El Bueno, El Malo y El Feo (1975), besides the classics Che Che Cole (1969) and Gitana (1984).

A key event in 1967 was the meeting between Puertorican vocalist Ismael Miranda (then still a teenager) and the orchestra of New York's pianist Larry Harlow, best documented on Abran Paso (1970). They revitalized the sound of son for the audience of rock music.

Arabs: Maqam

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While widely imitated around the world, the classic "maqam" Islamic style, that basically modulated a monophonic melodic figure, was rarely heard outside the Arab world. This musical system, one of the most intricated modal systems in the world, harks back to the heyday of the Arab empire and was organized during the Ottoman empire. The system (which is not an equally-tempered intonation system, and based on roughly 17 notes to the octave, with plenty of regional variations) prescribes a number of maqamat, that can be used either as finished compositions (typically for solo vocal performances) or as blueprints for composition. The maqam scale has, of course, an influence on the tuning of instruments. There are five makamat for the five daily calls to prayer, but there are also dozens of regional maqamat: Turkey's makam system lists more than 200 distinct modes. It is likely that the Ottomans simply unified a body of styles that they collected from Greece to Central Asia. Maqam was best represented by Egyptian girl prodigy Umm Kalthum, who first recorded in 1925, and by Lebanese Nuhad "Fayrouz" Haddad, who first aired in 1950.

Indonesian Gamelan

The percussive music called "gamelan" may have been around for centuries. A gamelan ensemble of gongs and xylophones is depicted in a bas-relief of Borobudur in the island of Java. Bali remained Hindu even after the Muslim conversion of the test of Indonesia, and the original gamelan mainly survived there. A vibrant center of gamelan in Java was Yogyakarta, where gamelan accompanied puppet shows. In general, however, gamelan became a kind of court music in Java, while it remained a temple and folk experience in Java. Regardless, the best gongs were manufactured by the village of Semarang on the north coast of central Java. In 1914 the restless kebyar style was invented in Bali, like the famous Jaya Semara. In 1945 the Dutch colonists began broadcasting gamelan music on the radio, and in 1956 the first recording company, Lokananta, began releasing gamelan music. Not much changed after Indonesian independence until Gde Yudane revolutionized gamelan music with Lebur Seketi (1995).

Indian Classical Music

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France: the Chansonniers

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During the first decades of the 20th century, Paris was the cultural capital of Europe. Impressionist painters, decadent poets, populist novelists, pioneering filmmakers and folk singers created a colorful milieu that came to be identified with the eccentric side of the "Belle Epoque", the so called "Boheme", centered around the district of Montmartre. Their favorite entertainment was much freer than what the prevailing moral dogmas prescribed. The performers of the "cafe`-concerto" began to sing both satirical and socially-aware tales, while the "cabarets" indulged in crazy dances and outrageous ballets. Entertainment became both a celebration of individual pleasure and a meditation on collective misery. la canzone satirica, che acquistera` via via toni ora grotteschi ora ironici. The tone of popular music turned grotesque, tragic and colloquial, frequently enhanced by "maudit" overtones. Its content shifted towards populist themes, so that popular music became a chronicle of real life. Musicians were also influenced by poets and playwrights, a factor which accounts for the continuous increase in intellectual depth of their songs. Furthermore, popular music came to coexist with avantgarde artists and subversive comedians. Politics, art and entertainment cross-fertilized each other in the cabarets of Paris.

Aristide Bruant, the hero of the "Chat Noir" (which opened in 1881), was the first "auteur" of popular music, followed by Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker in the new century.

At the end of World War II, a new spirit revitalized the tradition of the "chansonniers", and new musical ingredients (particularly from the USA) fostered greater complexity and variety. Those were the years of existentialism, and the chansonniers of Paris reflected that zeitgeist. They focused on the working class and the misfits, and they shunned the conformist bourgeoisie: Georges Brassens, whose anarchic epos permeates albums such as Chante Les Chansons Poetiques (1953), Le Parapluie (1954) and Les Trompettes De La Renommee (1962); Jacques Brel, whose melancholy romanticism overflows from Quand On N'a Que L'Amour (1957) and Ne Me Quitte Pas (1959); Leo Ferre`, a militant chansonnier influenced by the surrealists (Paris Canaille, 1954; L'Amour, 1956) who struck a philosophical balance between the poet and the politician on Ferre' 64 (1964); the elegant tenderness of Charles Aznavour (Chahnour Varenagh Aznaourian) and Gilbert Becaud (Et Maintenant, 1962).

The epoch was perhaps best defined by the melodramatic romanticism of Edith Piaf (Edith Gassion). She was the quintessential singer of lost love, but frequently set it against a decadent backdrop of of sex, death and drugs: Michel Emer's L'Accordeoniste (1940) her own La Vie en Rose (1947), Marguerite Monnot's Les Trois Cloches (1946) and Milord (1959), Gilbert Becaud's Je T'Ai Dans la Peau (1952) Norbert Glanzberg's Mon Manege a Moi (1958), Charles Domont's Non Je Ne Regrette Rien (1960).

In the 1950s she had to compete with the morbid eroticism of Juliette Greco, whose early hits were written by famous poets and set to music by Jozsef Kosma: Raymond Queneau's Si Tu T'Imagines (1949), Julef Laforgue's L'Eternel Feminine (1951), Jacques Prevert's Je Suis Comme Je Suis (1951) and Les Feuilles Mortes (1951).

France: the Ye'ye Generation

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With the arrival of rock'n'roll in France (Johnny Hallyday), the chansonniers began to fall out of favor. Even if rockers were never too popular in France, the "ye'ye" generation identified with younger and less serious performers. Francoise Hardy was the first ye-ye girl to write her own songs, the natural link between the chansonniers and folk-rock. The dreamy, languid, melancholy, angelic, elegant and seductive style of melodic gems such as Touts Les Garcons Et Les Filles (1962) was thoroughly new. It embodied the hopes and the angst of her generation.

Serge Gainsbourg (Lucien Ginzburg) destabilized the ye-ye scene with his sensual and "confidential" songs that, instead, harked back to the beatnik mood: Le Poinconneur des Lilas (1959), Couleur Cafe (1964), Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus (1967), Comment Te Dire Adieu (1968), Soixante Neuf Annee Erotique (1969). The peak of his lascivious art was perhaps Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971), a seven-song suite (arranged by Jean Claude Vannier) that chronicles a pervert's escapade with a nymphet.

Algeria: the Rai

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A music whose revolutionary message could compare with the protest songs of the USA and France was the Algerian rai.

At the turn of the century, the port of Oran, or, better, its decadent milieu of sailors, prostitutes and artists, experienced a boom in music that could rival New Orleans or Kansas City. The "cheikhs" and "cheikhas" (young male and young female performers) created a new style that fused Berber, Bedouin and Spanish elements. Conservative clerics disapproved, but Algeria was a colony of France. In the 1930s that music was called wahrani and had already embraced political overtones. This time it was the colonial oppressors who disapproved. Cheikha Rimitti was the first star, the best known of the "shaabi musicians" who became the soundtrack of Algeria's independence war.

In the 1960s, trumpet player Bellamou Messaoud coined a westernized form of rai, replete with elements of flamenco, blues, rock, jazz and funk, arranged with guitars, saxophone and accordion. He replaced wahrani's qasbah flute with the trumpet. He was appropriately nicknamed Le Pere du Rai (1989).

In 1967 the Algerian government banned rai (as well as alcohol). This sent the music underground, and producer Rachid Baba Ahmed became its reference point, helping the chebs and chebas, who took the place of the "cheikhs" and "cheikhas", record cassettes that spread around the country and Europe despite the official ban.

Russia: the Intelligentsia

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At the same time that protest songwriters were emerging in Europe and the USA, a much more literate generation of songwriters emerged in the Soviet Union, the most brutal regime of the time. Because the censorship organs of the Soviet Union refused to publish any of their works, poets such as Bulat Okudjava since 1946, Alexander Galich (Aleksandr Ginzburg) since 1961, Novella Matveeva, Vladimir Vysotsky in the 1960s and Yuliy Kim since 1956 resorted to music in order to have their lyrics heard by the people. Usually, they set such lyrics to simple accompaniments of acoustic guitar.

Something similar would happen two decades later in Czechoslovakia with Slavek Janousek, Jaromir Nohavica and Jim Cert.

Latin America: the Nueva Cancion

Eduardo Falu virtually founded the modern folk movement of the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. His art peaked with the Romance de la Muerte de Juan Lavalle (1965), written by poet Ernesto Sabato. The most famous folksinger to come out of that school was Mercedes Sosa, who debuted with the traditional songs of La Voz de la Zafra (1959) and whose most ambitious recording was the concept Cantata Sudamericana (1973), composed by Ariel Ramirez and written by Felix Luna. A better singer-songwriter was Violeta Parra in Chile, who composed the touching Gracias a la Vida (1966), one year before committing suicide.
  • History of Pop Music
  • European beginnings
  • The USA up to World War II
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