Exploring the origins of reggae

The classic reggae sound of Bob Marley is ubiquitous worldwide as an inherent indication of the joy, spirituality, political awareness and sheer creativity of Jamaica. The messages of the lyrics, the brilliance of the delivery and the call to awakening has had huge repercussions on popular music, which continue through to the present day.

And whilst Bob and the Wailers were and are possibly the most recognisable avatar for the musical soul of a nation, they also represent what has gone before; names that may never enter the mainstream but without whom the world may never have heard the likes of Lively Up Yourself or Buffalo Soldier.

To explore the sounds of Bob Marley is to imbibe layer upon layer of his predecessors working often in ramshackle studios with basic equipment; reggae itself is a style that blossomed out of other, previous heroes whose record sales may be in the hundreds rather than the millions, but whose influences are absolutely influential.

The Mento style grew from the Jamaican folk scene and was mildly satirical with topical lyrics. Influenced by calypso and Cuban music, it draws on musical traditions brought over by African slaves. By the 1950s such artists as Ivan Chin and Stanley Motta brought the music to a receptive audience including Lee Scratch Perry, later an important producer and artist.

Also important were the sound systems that turned out to play R&B records, generally from the United States, plus blues tunes, in the post-WWII years. As the popularity of American music ebbed a little, Jamaican artists began to record their own versions with the offbeat ‘skank’ guitar rhythm. Prince Buster himself comes into play at this point as one of the innovators of a new style.

Ska appears

The horn-heavy Ska then emerged, combining Mento with jazz, rhythm and blues and a touch of calypso. Count Ossie is said to have been one of the first artists to have made a recording. Upbeat rhythm with the emphasis on the off beat and walking bass lines mark out the music, which is more recognisable to the average reggae fan than mento may be. The early 1960s were arguably the heyday of Ska, albeit that there have been numerous revivals since then including the English 2-Tone revival of the late 1970s and a US version that many ska-punk bands explored in the early 1990s. The name itself is debatable in its origin; quite possibly a scratchy strum of a guitar making a ‘ska’ noise which seems to make sense.

Rocksteady increased the basslines, a host of rude boys including the nascent Wailers, Desmond Dekker and others prominent by around the mid-1960s. Harmony groups like The Maytals (featuring Toots Hibbert)and Paragons performed from around 1966 onwards. Indeed, the term itself comes from an Alton Ellis song of the same name. During the Rocksteady period – usually seen as about 1966 to spring 1968, poor youngsters were flocking to Kingston in search of work . Some went off the rails and were known as rude boys.

The early Wailers

For one young man born in Saint Ann Parish, these influences were ones he grew up with. Son of a white Jamaican of mixed descent and an Afro-Jamaican mother, Robert Nesta Marley already had a unique view of life and music. Along with his step-brother, Bunny Wailer and Peter McIntosh (Peter Tosh) a Ska and Rocksteady group was formed which had various names including The Teenagers before finally becoming The Wailers. Between 1968 and 1972 the Wailers cut tracks in London but it wasn’t until The Wailers met Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, that the world really started to hear from the band. Catch A Fire kicked it all off then the follow-up Burnin’ included classics such as Get Up, Stand Up and I Shot The Sherrif – the Eric Clapton cover of which brought the song, and the sound, to a wider audience that had already had a taste of Jamaica from the seminal film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff playing Ivanhoe Martin, based on Rhyging, a real-life 1940s outlaw.

Music’s nature is that it never stands still; Bob Marley and the Wailers may be the most recognisable of the artists in a pop sense but for as long as political consciousness, personal issues and spiritualism exist, so will innovators of music; reggae was perhaps the conduit for a wider world to begin to at least acknowledge the Jamaican experience. The next stage has been for people to begin to try and understand it.