THE HISTORY OF REGGAE
I have my mum to blame for my love of reggae music. Since I was a little boy, she constantly played all the legends- John Holt, Alton Ellis, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaac et al- She would always force me to get up and dance with her. With the release of the new film ‘Marley’, documenting the life and struggles of the late, great Robert Nesta Marley, it got me thinking to exploring the history of the music that Bob was so influential in bringing to the Western world.
If I am going to explore reggae music, we have to go back to where it all started. Mento Music is often called ‘The Grandfather’- as this was the precursor to Reggae and all the subgenres that followed. Mento is best described as a fusion of African and European musical traditions with a band playing instruments such as a fiddle, banjo, and guitar- and was uniquely Jamaican. For parties, people would hire a band and would dance the night away to the sounds of this traditional folk music. To this day, there are still a few very old Mento bands around- and for my Grandfather’s 70th birthday in Jamaica recently, he hired the T. Miller Band, who were very prominent many years ago. I can assure you that even though they were no spring chickens, they came with an infectious energy and it was easy to see how this folk music so heavily inspired the Reggae we know today.
Mento bands date back to the 19th Century, but it wasn’t until the 1940’s and early 50’s when the first Mento Songs were pressed on Vinyl, that the music world really sit up and took notice of this Island music. These early recordings meant that people could listen to Mento at home without having to hire a band, and are the humble beginnings of the Sound System culture in Jamaica. It was typically more affluent people that could afford to hire a full band for parties, so being able to listen to Mento with just a few records and speakers, brought the music to the masses without the added expense.
As Mento became more prominent, every artist put their own spin on the genre. Calypso was largely seen as the most popular music in the Caribbean at the time, so naturally had a large influence. But as Mento was played more and more through speakers, the people demanded to hear the thump of the bass, as opposed to the highs of the treble, and soon enough, the sound evolved into Ska.
During the 1950’s- Jazz & RnB of the deep south of America were gaining national prominence with artists such as Little Richard, Johnny Otis and Chuck Berry producing hit after hit. Jamaicans were able to pick up high powered American radio stations, so were able to listen to and enjoy this music. At this time, the Civil Rights Movement was at its infancy, and the struggles felt by the black population were reflected in the lyrics and were a powerful means of uplifting the common man. Caribbean people loved the American sound and the influence soon became prominent in the music being created by Jamaican artists, and this fusion of African-American culture with the traditions of Jamaica helped propel Ska into a massively popular international genre.
Ska was made for dancing. Played through large speakers, feeling the bass, and drums through every part of your body and the crowd had an insatiable thirst for more. This craving for bigger and louder music led to diehard fans engineering ways of building ever larger speakers without distorting the sound quality. Similar to today’s culture where people claim to have the fastest cars, in Jamaica in the late 50’s and early 60’s- everyone claimed to have the biggest and “baddest” sound system in their area. And to show their prowess, owners of the sound systems would display their set up on street corners and blare out Ska music with hundreds in attendance. Some of the most prominent at the time were the likes of Sir Coxsone, who later formed Studio One, & Trojan-, who are still prevalent names in the industry today.
With Ska came traditions such as Skanking, and the Rudeboy- and both are still familiar terms used today. Rihanna made a popular song about Rudeboys, and you will still find youths in nightclubs up and down the country skanking to all genres of music.
Famous Ska acts included Desmond Dekker; Toots & the Maytals; The Skatalites; a very young Bob Marley and the Wailers; & Millie Small who created the smash hit ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Ska was typified by its upbeat, optimistic themes, making it perfect party music that the whole family could enjoy. However, by the early 1960s, the world was changing and was a time of great transition for Black people. The Civil Rights Movement was gaining great momentum in America, Mass Immigration from the Caribbean to Britain was in full swing, & Jamaica gained its Independence from Britain in 1962. This time brought an array of socio-economic problems and was reflected in the music that became known as Rocksteady (Named after the Alton Ellis 1966 song of the same name). Artists used music to highlight the political and social problems of the era, influenced by American Soul- and was the precursor for the genre we know today as Reggae. It was not as upbeat as Ska and put much more emphasis on meaningful lyrics to unite listeners. Even American soul singers sang began to take note of this fledgling genre with Johnny Nash becoming was the first non-Jamaican to record in Jamaica. Despite being a prominent pop/soul artist, he was an advocate of the rocksteady movement and is arguably best known for his 1968 hit ‘Hold Me Tight’.
Reggae really began to take off in the late 1960s when the subdued rocksteady approach began to die out, introducing the world to a more buoyant, loving & peaceful style Jamaican movement. And this movement was driven by themes of the Rastafarian religion and its most notable servant is of course- the great Bob Marley. Bob Marley and the Wailers are widely recognised as the band that brought Reggae to the mainstream with Bob’s smooth vocals and song subjects; he struck a chord and granted Reggae music a worldwide audience.
In Britain, to those who emigrated from Jamaica from 1948 onwards- this sound was nothing new. Along with exotic foods, strange accents, and colourful clothes- they brought the culture of the Sound System with “Shoobins” being held in cities all over the country- most notably in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol. At first, these shoobins were very much segregated events, with the vast majority of the revellers made up of Caribbean people, but by the early 70’s, the children of immigration were socialising with British children and gradually showing them West Indian Culture. Reggae music played a major role in breaking down these barriers, as it reflected on issues that all young, poor people no matter colour or creed could relate to.
Reggae’s popularity in Britain was helped by mainstream radio disc jockeys such as John Peel & David Rodigan, whom were strong advocates for the music in the early 1970s and brought it to an audience who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to it. Their influence allowed the likes of Bob Marley, and Jimmy Cliffe to come to the UK and host an audience of both black and white fans. The Skinhead and Punk subcultures are testament to the West Indian influence on Britain during the late 60s and early 70s. My mum fondly remembers going to nightclubs in the late 1970s with friends of all different ethnicities- which is something we often take for granted nowadays. It was this universal love for reggae that allowed British Reggae acts to gain popularity including UB40, Azwad, and Matumbi.
A few years later, Lover’s Rock emerged out of the London scene focusing on the loving side of reggae music- as opposed to the more conscious, religious side. This scene brought through familiar names such as Carol Thompson, Peter Hunnigale, and Janet Kay, who were all well received in the UK & Europe.
In the modern era, Reggae and its evolutions such as Jungle, Dub & Dancehall are still prevalent in the UK, Caribbean, & America. Sound system culture can be found as far away as Tokyo, Japan- and is still breaking down barriers to this day. Reggae is still as popular as ever and the BBC recently hosted a sell out live reggae concert at the Barbican Theatre in London, featuring old reggae artists including Ken Boothe, Janet Kay, and Ali Campbell from UB40.
It is very rare to find a genre of music that different ethnic groups, generations, and classes can all appreciate and share a love. I have been to many a party where children, parents and grandparents are up on their feet, dancing and singing in unison- and that’s the reason why Reggae is, and always will be, my first love.
Marley is out in selected cinemas nationwide, please check local listings for more information: http://www.bobmarley.com/marley_the_movie.php