The Music of Jamaica: A ‘World Music’ Archetype

Jamaican music is amongst the best travelled in the world of music. Reggae, in particular, was one of the first genres beyond Anglo-American popular music to become trulyglobal and has since captured the imaginations of musicians and listeners around the world, establishing itself as one of only a few rivals to Anglo-American popular music musics on an international scale; a feat all the more impressive given the island’s tiny population. In fact, reggae is often regarded as the archetype of ‘World Music’ with its familiar yet exotic soundworld, its ‘local’ expression rooted in a particular place and distinctive community and its ‘global’ envoicement of pan-African liberatory politics, confident globalism and otherworldly spirituality. The island is also home to a diversity of traditional musics, and it is their development that gave birth to the host of Jamaican popular musics that are today celebrated supremely in the contexts of ‘World Music’ and beyond.

Country Profile

Jamaica (also known as Ja, Jamdown and Jamrock) is the fourth largest island nation in the Caribbean and has a population of nearly 3 million. It is an Anglophone country, with English as its official language de jure, but its de facto national language is an English-based Creole language with West African influences known locally as Patois (Jamaica is called Jamdungin Patois). Its ethnic composition is majority African descent, with European, Chinese and Indian minorities, and the largest religion practised is Protestant Christianity, although it also has a notable Rastafarian movement, African religious cults including the Kuminaand Afro-Christian revivalist sects like the Zion Way Baptists as well as some Bahá’i, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim followers. Its population is marginally more urban than rural but, as its rate of urbanisation is very low (less than 1%), its balance seems fairly stable.

Cultural History

The Arawak peoples from South America occupied the Greater Antilles over 2,500 years ago, and the Taíno, a linguistic and cultural subgroup, inhabited modern-day Jamaica and named it Xaymaca(‘the land of wood and water’). After its ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the West Indies (1494), Spanish colonists settled on the island, renaming it Santiago, and started to build up settlements (1509). As the Taíno peoples became increasingly devastated by forced labour deaths and disease, they brought in slaves from Africa. However, the Spanish left it exposed due to its lack of valuable resources, quarrels with church authorities and its vulnerability to pirate raids, and so the island was eventually taken over by the English (1655). As Spanish colonists fled the island for Cuba, they freed their slaves and armed them to fight off the British, creating an unchained, tenacious community of Bantu Jamaicans who became known as the Maroons. During early English rule, Port Royal became a hub of buccaneering and piracy: privateers like Henry Morgan ruthlessly raided Spanish fleets and islands, sometimes with English mandate. The English brought vast numbers of enslaved West Africans to the West Indies to work on plantations in the expanding sugar industry (late 17th-18thC), and slaves quickly outnumbered Europeans on the island. In Jamaica, slaves frequently rebelled against the colonists: some directly revolted, as in the Easter Rebellion (1760) and the Christmas Rebellion led by Sam Sharpe (1831), and others escaped plantations to join the Maroons, who themselves fought conflicts against the English (1739-1740) and secured land and rights as a free population (1740). Through the activism of anti-slavery humanitarians and religious lobbyists, as well as rebellions from the slaves themselves, the Abolition Bill (1808) outlawed slavery and the slave trade across the British Empire, though, due to its gradual implementation, it took a few decades for full emancipation to reach Jamaica (1838).

Post-slavery days were rife with hardship and poverty, as oligarchic governors maintained a deeply oppressive and unequal society, bringing in indentured labourers from central Africa, India and China and thus neglecting freed black Jamaicans. Following civil unrest, including the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865) led by Paul Bogle, the island developed improved education, healthcare, transport and social services and recovered economically. However, in the 1930s, Jamaica was thrown into crisis again due to economic depression, falling sugar prices and growing unemployment, leading to the galvanisation of labour unions, especially the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and the National Workers’ Union, and their associated political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party. Leaders like Marcus Garvey promoted African pride and self-determination. Jamaica won its independence from Britain (1962), but its post-independence period was plagued by unemployment, poverty and corruption, with ‘sufferers’ marginalised into destitute slums and housing ghettos like Dungle and Trench Town and disenfranchised ‘rudeboys’ turning to illegal hustling and gang violence. During the cold war, independent Jamaica swung between the capitalist USA and communist Cuba, but eventually sided with the former. Economic and social strife for the majority of Jamaicans has barely diminished over recent decades, though the country itself has made substantial gains by investing heavily in industry and tourism.

Music Culture

Tracing the Roots

Despite the immense popularity of Jamaican popular music genres (incl. ska, rocksteady and reggae), the island’s traditional musics are hardly known beyond its borders. These traditional musics maintain important cultural functions in social and ritual contexts across the country today, and they are also important in that, along with extraneous musical influences (primarily from the USA), they moulded the aesthetic trends, textual tropes and cultural tendencies of subsequent Jamaican popular musics.

Traditional song and dance in Jamaica revolved around three key areas: work, play and worship. Song featured across all three contexts, with worksongs accompanying labour, narrative songs serving as a form of recreation and entertainment at social contexts and sacred songs functioning as a form of devotion in sacred contexts, while dance music (though often featuring singing) was more associated with worship and play, acting as an enactment of festivity at religious celebrations and as collectivity at social gatherings. Yet, it is worth recognising that, despite relatively clear demarcations for the originary purposes of songs and dance musics, the use of traditional musics in practice was notably fluid: almost all traditional song has a dimension of movement, even if expressed spontaneously, and virtually all dance music features singing, even if improvisatory and responsorial; and songs and dances devised with certain purposes in one context are freely adapted and recontextualised for other purposes in other contexts (e.g. worksongs used for recreation at social gatherings, secular tunes set to devotional texts for worship at religious ceremonies, etc). This is perhaps because there is a persistent blurring of the sacred and the secular, and subsequently the traditional and the popular, in musical practices in Jamaica: humour, enjoyment and festivity are at the heart of devotional musics while profundity, participation and spirituality are important dimensions crucial of social musics.

Roots: Work

Worksongs are assumed to be the oldest living traditional musics in Jamaica. Little is known of Taíno tradition, and its influence on subsequent traditional musics is thought to be insignificant, so African-derived worksongs are identified as the earliest form of Jamaican musical practice. Singing was widely tolerated by English slavers, unlike other traditional practices, due to its capacity to motivate the workforce and thus increase productivity, enabling sustained development of singing practices and thus the cultivation of customary worksong traditions. Conversely, forced labour for slaves on plantations under early colonial rule pervaded almost all waking hours, inhibiting the development of other music traditions.

Stylistically, worksongs comprised the adaptation of (apposite African-derived) song traditions by black slaves to the contexts of forced labour. Men’s worksongs favoured responsorial singing between the bomma/chantwell(‘singerman’; leader) and the workers (chorus), often with elaborate recitative calls from the chantwell and ostinato responses from the chorus, while women’s worksongs tended to emphasise melismatic individual reveries or homophonic group singing. The melodic organisation, responsorial textures and vocal timbres display characteristic ‘Africanisms’, while the texts evidenced recontextualisation in their reflections on contemporaneous experiences (both literally, i.e. men’s songs about digging and other forms of agricultural labour, women’s songs about fishing, weaving and domestic housework and songs imitating the ‘work bell’ that summoned slaves to the fields; and figuratively, e.g. dislocation, freedom, etc) and the rhythms were brought in sync with the beat of the labour. It seems that African-derived features and purposes were mainly drawn from the vocal traditions of the (West African) griot/jeli, a singer-storyteller who sang praise songs and functioned in a range of significant cultural roles including ancestral medium, oral historian, social commentator and political advisor. This is manifest in the emphasis on narrative song, on textual and vocal improvisation and on spontaneous social commentary. The songs offered slaves a channel of communication, bypassing bans on conversation while working the plantations, and it enabled them to maintain their traditional stories, histories, customs and identities as well as exchange news, gossip and even veiled ridicule of slave masters through symbolic switching (e.g. the worksong ‘Chi chi bud’ appears to be about naming different kinds of birds but actually compared the overseer to the scavenging John Crow that picks at the bones of other birds (the black slaves)).

As an adaptable oral tradition, the style and purpose of worksongs changed and diversified over time, with later influences including the heptatonic melodies, ‘heavy’ 2-beat (2/4 or 6/8) pulse and dotted rhythms of English sailors’ sea shanties, the triadic harmonies of Anglian hymnody and eventually their own ‘Jamaicanisms’ (e.g. Patois slang, distinct forms of acerbic wit and melodies combining African-derived syncopations and European-derived triadic contours). After emancipation, farmers and free workers advocated the value of worksongs and both contributed to maintaining the tradition: the farmers, beyond providing necessary tools, food, drink and pay for their workers, would usually hire a ‘singerman’ who would ‘raise tunes’ and entertain and thus motivate workers in ‘digging matches’ (cooperative work sessions) by clowning around and making witty and topical observations. New urban worksongs subsequently developed amongst city workers (e.g. ‘drilling songs’ that tended to draw on a wider range of cosmopolitan influences but, as before, were synced in to the rhythms of the labour and reflected on the locale, though often featuring more direct political comment e.g. disseminating political scandal). Even today, government public works projects in cities sometimes hire a ‘singerman’ to harness their ability to appease the workforce and, perhaps nowadays, to sustain the worksong traditions that they maintain as part of the country’s heritage.

Roots: Play

Over time, the restrictions on the pervasiveness of work loosened a little, enabling the cultivation of recreational and social musics in the context of ‘play’ at Saturday night social gatherings and dahlins (moonlight parties) held on festive occasions. The term usually applied to profane Jamaican traditional musics is mento(possibly derived from Old Spanish mentar, ‘to mention’; often described in terms of song, music and dance ‘grown in Jamaica’). Mento developed through the syncretisation of ‘African’ (mainly from West and Central Africa) and ‘Western’ (European and, later, American) traditions. The function of mento, similar to worksongs, included voicing gossip, local news and scandal and oral history (e.g. references to the Morant Bay rebellion (1865)), making use of speech patterns and wordplay in patois. There was an even greater prominence of censure and ridicule in mento, though it still generally prided itself on witty veiled satirical comment and observation rather than direct provocation or insult. Stylistically, too, it bears similarities to the worksongs, with African-derived group responsorial singing and solo spontaneous improvisations and Western-derived melodic contours and harmonic triads, but it also evidences influences from traditional devotional Bantu rhythms (see below), especially with shuffling patterns that accent the offbeat.

After emancipation (1838), mento song/music/dance became increasingly popular at village fairs and other public communal events such as brams (outdoor dances), which featured thequadrille(a set of creolized dances combining European dance melodies and harmonies, like that of the waltz, polka and schottische, with Jamaican vocal improvisation, syncopation and rhythmic patterns). Mentoalso played an important quasi-spiritual role in the sombre contexts of dinkies((musical) wakes; from the Congolese word ndingi, a lamentation or funeral song), where empathetic lament-style singing offered comfort, the gerreh (a distinctive acrobatic bamboo dance performed on bamboo poles accompanied by ancient bamboo idiophones) symbolised the passing of the spirit and uplifting mento songs would raise the mood and incite dancing to celebrate the afterlife; the dinkies were believed to be a last send-off for the present spirit of the dead that, once thoroughly entertained, would leave for the ancestral spiritual realm.

Specific social song practices at community gatherings included: ‘sung stories’ (see below); ‘insult battles’, where singers would use textual and melodic improvisation to directly ridicule one another in song; and song-based ‘ring games’ (see below). In these forms, singing normalised social values and served as a form of education, nurturing life skills including performativity, humour, sociality, spontaneity, vocal maturity, rhythmic feel, bodily dexterity and personal confidence. ‘Ring games’ combine Central African and English play song traditions, indigenised over time with ‘Jamaicanisms’ such as particular kinds of syncopation, dramatization, stylized dance and quick witty humour. Two particularly popular ring traditions include the ‘stone game’ and ‘cowhands’ games: the former is derived from Akan (Ghana) tradition and developed with slave task of breaking stones by hand and involves passing rocks around the ring to the rhythms of the song with the aim of diminishing your pile, requiring a faultless sense of beat to avoid any smashed fingers; and the latter is drawn more from English traditions and involves two people acting as ‘bulls’, one inside and one outside a circle of people holding each other’s wrists, who bellow at each other and charge the circle until they break through at which point they ‘lock horns’ in a dramatised mock fight.

The core traditional song form was narrative sung ‘stories’ (often labelled by Western scholars as ‘cantefables’ though not emically referred to as such). Like the worksongs, these ‘stories’ originally resembled the storytelling genre of the West Africangriot, using its recitative style and its tales of Anaanu(a West African spider deity). Yet, over time, these ‘stories’ became increasingly indigenised into a distinctively ‘Jamaican’ genre: the authoritarian divine Anaanu, a force of law and order in a timeless world that essentially reinforces the structures of tribal power, morphed into the subversive ‘spider man’ Anancy, a comic trickster and rebellious antihero in an all-too-real world of hardship that embodies the slave fantasy, and subsequently the Jamaican imaginary, of overthrowing oppressors through talents of cunning and creativity. Similarly, the recitative style of the ‘stories’ developed its own syncretic melodic approach based on English and West African tendencies (melodic contours of English sea shanties and Anglican hymns and textual conventions, proverbs and syncopation derived from West African tradition). Through Anancy’s deeds, these narrative ‘stories’ reflected on the life cycle of slaves, focusing on hardship, illness and death, maintaining the didactic purpose of the griottradition by invoking collectivity, shared heritage and shared experiences through the oratory power and poetic excellence of the performer. Yet, they also use social comment in novel ways, using wit, humour and dark irony to chastise suffering and injustice. As such, Anancy came to represent both the realities and fantasies of marginalised black Jamaicans: he is an undeniably poor and oppressed figure, but his masterful cunning and skills of verbal sabotage enable him to triumph over the rich, cruel and powerful (e.g. in some tales, he even manages to outsmart and defeat the Devil himself). Anancy stories dignify the sufferer and they also affirm the power of song in the people’s struggle with oppression: song is a key source of Anancy’s powers, as in one tale where he uses song to fell an enchanted tree that defeats all assailants who try with an axe.

Two key festive embodiments of ‘play’ in syncretic Jamaican tradition were the Jonkunnu(also known as the Buru or, later, the Jonkonnu or Junkanoo) and the Brukinscelebrations. The Jonkunnu was the earliest sanctioned public slave festivities which, held during Christian festive periods (e.g. Christmas and Easter), constituted a syncretic merging of the sacred/profane and the ‘African’/‘Western’ and involved spectacular processional marches, masquerades and parades. Its processions drew on a combination of apposite African song, drumming, dance and ritual traditions (especially the Akan okonko) as well as the song and festive practices of Spanish Carnival tradition and English nativity parades. The centrepiece is a grand carnivalesque march of costumed men enacting comic performance as a variety of characters (e.g. the Bride, the Devil and, drawn from the English ‘hobby horse’, the buru (horse head)). The music comprised melodies from voices and fifes, organised with English-derived contours and African-derived responsorial patterns with heterophonic textures utilising elaboration and variation. These melodies are accompanied by idiomatic drumming which, drawing influence from (Ghanaian) Ashanti talking drum patterns, involved a trio of drums (bass(a large stick-beaten double-headed drum), fundeh(a medium hand-beaten cylindrical single-headed drum) and keteh (or repeater,a small head-beaten cylindrical single-headed drum) where the bass drum strikes out booming regular beats on the beats 1 and 3 (X…X…), though often with syncopated anticipation of the 1, the fundeh carries a sharp, accented ‘heartbeat’ pattern on the offbeat (..XX..XX) and the keteh improvises freely as a ‘melodic’ instrument against the other two, using syncopation, accents and timbral variation to create cross-rhythms, elaborated further through additional idiophones (shakers, scrapers, etc).

The Bruckins, which was instituted as an annual celebration of emancipation from slavery, involves many traditions similar to the Carnival revelries, as well as its own distinctive all-night competition. Here, performers dance stylised martial gestures and movements to the syncopated vocalisms and the processional beats of a military-style drum troupe (featuring a range of drums but dominated by the ostinato strikes of the snare drum and, later, the piercing blasts of the brass) who orchestrate the movements of the dancers to help show off their talents. Today, the all-night events are no longer held but youth groups perform the demanding dance forms for theatrical entertainment at festivals.

Roots: Worship

Given the fixity of music and dance in many African spiritual rituals, it is perhaps unsurprising that song and dance retain such an important role in religious worship in Jamaica. Under Spanish colonial rule, Congolese, and especially Bantu, cults were dominant amongst the slave population and devotional music was central to their religious worship. Bantu ritual musical practices involve complex responsorial singing over polyrhythmic drumming and also involve solo and collective dancing. In spirit possession ceremonies, singing and drumming were used to praise, appease and consult with the badimo (‘ancestors’), and specific sung melodies and drum patterns ‘speak’ to a specific ancestral spirit for blessings and guidance. The festive aftermath of these possession ceremonies, conceptualised as ‘parties’ for the badimo, involved responsorial singing, featuring intricate vocalised ‘calls’ answered by ostinato responses, with fast polyrhythmic drumming based on shifting interlocking textures and with solo virtuoso dancing as well as perpetual collective movement.

Once the English took the island, the mass import of slaves from West Africa and the presence of the Maroons meant that African religious cults rose in prominence on the island. Despite the suppression of such practices on many plantations, they thrived in areas outside of such control (e.g. in places more focused on curtailing piracy and in the territories of the Maroons) or by syncretising with the accepted religion of Christianity; indeed, the Jonkunnu (see above) developed during this period as a festive embodiment of slave traditions, communities and identities. The Maroons developed their own distinct syncretic religious culture, drawing on ‘Gold Coast’  (Ghana) and ‘slave coast’ (Burkina Faso to Benin) heritages and the spirit of resistance from fighting against enslavement. Their kromanti (‘play’) dance, drawing on Ashanti healing rituals, incites spirit possession by summoning the ancestral spirits to reveal in the human world through meditative singing, vivacious drumming and ecstatic dancing. Their drumming follows largely the same organisation as the Burudrumming, though the textures and timbres are somewhat different due to the use of a large cylindrical bass drum and the addition of the goombeh (a single-headed square frame drum with a smaller drum hidden inside) and a range of idiophones (e.g. kwat (bamboo idiophone struck by two sticks) and adawo(a machete struck with a metal stick)) that create shifting interlocking rhythms aimed at inspiring trance dancing. To initiate ceremonies, the abeng (a cow horn) is often sounded to signal devotion to the ancestors and to commemorate the struggle against colonial suppression, for which the abeng itself was actually used as a tool of warfare for relaying messages and signalling impending attacks.

After emancipation (1838), Christianity, neo-traditional cults like the Kumina and syncretic Afro-Christian forms like the Revivalists sects and Rastafarianismbecame the major religions on the island. Though drawing influence from previous tendencies, they have each developed their own forms of devotional musical practice. Christian worship in church services mainly focuses on ecclesiastical song traditions, including Anglican hymns and African-American gospel songs. Jamaican gospel performance often features virtuosic lead singers, responsorial singing with a chorus and harmonic accompaniment from piano/organ and, later, especially in Pentecostal denominations, from a Western popular music band (electric guitars, bass, keyboard and drum kit). Yet, even the performance of Anglican hymns evidences ‘Africanisms’: the use of clapping and dance reflects the unity of song and dance prevalent in ‘African’ aesthetics and, more recently, traditional drums and drumming have even been integrated into Christian religious services, adapted to invoke the saints and the Holy Spirit rather than the ancestors and the ancestral spirits. Composers like Noel Dexter have also composed syncretic Jamaican songs that combine African and Western (mainly African-American) devotional musical tendencies to embody and reflect on the musical, cultural and religious identity of modern Christians in Jamaica.

The Afro-Christian Revivalist sects took fusion as the norm in their syncretic religious customs. Their characteristic approach involves varying combinations of (mainly West) African and Christian devotional practices and musics, for example the Pukkumina places a greater emphasis on the former while the Zion Way somewhat favours the latter. Melodies and vocalities for songs are largely derived from Western hymns and gospel songs but are elaborated through call-and-response singing, polyphonic drumming, hand-clapping/foot-stamping and movement and dancing. The act of ‘trumping’ is particularly prominent, where participants engage in singing in ‘unknown tongues’ with loud guttural breathing and grunting while they move in a circle to hypnotic interlocking drum rhythms that accelerate and crescendo with faster and louder exclamations, movements and drumming, climaxing in collective spirit possession.

The Kuminacult developed as a neo-traditional ‘African’ practice amongst freed slaves and new indentured labourers who came to Jamaica after emancipation. As such, it is dominated by Congolese aesthetics in its use of song, drumming and dance to mediate the human and spirit worlds. Kumina prayer, featuring the responsorial singing of melodies that are set to and reflect the contours of ancestral speech-patterns, initiates all ceremonies and invokes, reveres and connects with the ancestral spirits and with King Nzambi, the supreme God, as a requirement for all Kumina rituals. Ceremonies like healing and thanksgiving rites themselves feature call-and-response singing, polyrhythmic drumming and collective dancing.  Kumina drumming is perhaps the most semantically and rhythmically complex in Jamaica. The sacred kbandu (medium straddled single-headed ‘male’ talking drum) and kyas drums (small straddled single-headed ‘female’ talking drum) enter into quasi-lexical conversations, with pitched adjusted by the heels of the drummers, and are able to express an enormous and sophisticated catalogue of orally transmitted calls-and-responses for communicating with specific ancestral spirits based on the speech-patterns of ancient languages. The drums also play against one another in complex interlocking relationships where cyclical changes in accent, emphasis and syncopation create ebb-and-flow between different polyphonic cross-rhythms. In most performances, the kbandu starts out by striking out the distinctive ‘limping’ King Nzambi rhythm (XX.XX.XX.XX.), which is often then taken up by dancing participants who clap and stamp this rhythm while the kbandu and kyas then move on to communicate with each other and with other ancestral spirits and develop their polyrhythmic interplay. In more recent times, the Kuminaprayer has been expanded into an indigenous Jamaican song genre known as baila (or bilah), which involves high, full-throated unison singing with heterophonic elaborations in the refrains.

Finally, the Rastafarian movement encompassed both syncretic devotional and also neo-traditional practices. In its early days in Jamaica, Rastafari devotional practices were rather similar to those of the Revivalist sects in their Afro-Christian songs, hymns, drumming and dancing. Yet, as a non-doctrinal religion, Rastafarianism has always been notably liberal in its beliefs. The ceremonies which embody this liberalism are the ‘grounations’: ‘reasoning sessions’ which feature philosophical discussion on the central spiritual and socio-political discourses of the religion (e.g. the notion of Jah(God) as a living spirit force, the commonality of humanity (hence the use of ‘I’ for me, you and we and the use of ‘Inity’ rather than ‘Unity’) and the struggle against the ‘downpressors’ for black emancipation and liberation) alongside collective meditation and chanting to slow drumming based on the resting pulse of the human heartbeat. The grounationsalso feature copious consumption of ganja (Jamaican colly weed, ‘marijuana’; a plant which can be rendered as a psychoactive drug), employed as a spiritual medicine to enhance the other practices by instigating heightened perception and, in mystical terms, emancipation from mental slavery.

Extensive grounations occur on Grounation Day, which commemorates the visit of Haile Selassie, regarded as the Rastafarian messiah, to Jamaica (1966). However, during the Jamaican independence struggle, Rastafarianism became increasingly politicised, as its values of peace, unity, common humanity, self-expression and self-determination resonated amongst the black nationalist youth of Jamaica and, as part of a greater emphasis on black unity and on Africa as Zion(the Holy Land). This was particularly driven by the work of political campaigner Marcus Garvey, regarded by many Rastas as a spiritual prophet, who was a vocal advocate of pan-Africanism in ideology and in practice. Thus, Jamaican Rastafarianism underwent an African revival and cultivated new neo-traditional African practices. Its main inspirations for this were the Buru drumming (see above) but also the nyabinghi culture of the Central African (Bantu) Kiga tribe. Rastas identified with the nyabinghi culture as symbolic of resilience against oppression: the bagirwa (a line of divine priestesses andfemale warriors, held to be descendants of the supreme matriarchal goddess Nyabinghi) resisted colonial subjugation so ferociously that invaders branded them as witches capable of summoning supernatural powers. Incidentally, the nyabinghi drumming is similar to that of the Buru, due to common Bantu roots and approaches to drumming based on the same ancient speech-patterns, and it plays a central role in nyabinghi culture, regarded as a conduit with the spirit world and as the source of the mystical power that emboldened their warriors. ‘Nyabinghi’ cultural icons and practices were thus incorporated alongside existing elements in Rastafari ceremonies and, in this context, the trio of drums is referred to as ‘The Harp’, the bass drum is known as the ‘Thunder’ and the keteh as the ‘Repeater’. The Buruand nyabinghi influences, both musically and symbolically, ‘Africanised’ Rastafari devotional practice and aimed to impart this cultural and mystical power of resistance into their social struggle in Jamaica.

From Roots to Reggae

Over the course of the 20thC, these traditional musics, especially mento, Junkanoo and Rastafarian song/music/dance gave rise to new mediated Jamaican popular music genres, notably ska, rocksteady and reggae.

During the early decades of the 20thC, traditional musics became part of the struggle for independence. Mento started to modernise in stylistic terms, integrating new influences from Afro-Cuban and American musics, especially in terms of its integration of functional harmony, its simplification of complex African-derived polyrhythms for more basic and regular syncopations (that in some respects captured the essence of such rhythms) and its instrumentation (e.g. use of flutes, fiddles, harmonicas, whistles, clarinets and trumpets in melodies, chordophones like the guitar for harmonies and drums, drum kit and idiophones (sticks, maracas, rattles) for denser musical texture). Its propensity for veiled spontaneous comment and ridicule provided a platform for social comment and critique, while its emphasis on group participation in singing and dancing enabled it to express collectivity and solidarity in black communities. Similarly, Rastafarian ‘grounation’ sessions became increasingly politicised and prominent Rasta musicians came to embody the black Jamaican liberation in the context of the independence movement.

During the 1930s-1940s, mento was recorded and disseminated on radio broadcasts across and beyond Jamaica, and topical, rebellious and bawdy songs especially found success abroad, branded as the ‘calypso’ of Jamaica (often literally, creating a great deal of confusion on the distinctions between calypso and mento styles and musicians).

Yet, during the 1950s, mass urbanisation, the cheap production of radios and the rise of ‘sound systems’ (mobile discos where DJs played records on booming box speakers) led to an upsurge in fast, urban dance forms, such as US jump blues.

By the 1960s, Jamaica had its own burgeoning record industry and popular music scene and, with the arrival of rock and roll from the US, musicians who had been engaged in swing and R&B developed an indigenous Jamaican dance music: ska. Stylistically, ska combined influences from Afro-Cuban music, American jazz and R&B and Jamaican song and dance, and its distinctive rhythm is based on the interplay between the fast, 4/4 driving beat of R&B and the accented afterbeat (variously attributed to mentoor Rastafarian rhythms and certainly present in both). Culturally, it became the soundtrack of Jamaican independence (its heyday was 1961-1965), and its driving upbeat pulse, its jubilant melodies and its emancipated virtuoso improvisations captured the mood of liberation, albeit with glimpses of the deprivation and despondency in growing melancholic numbers towards the end of this period.

As the social strife worsened in the slums and estates and the violence of the ‘rudeboys’ intensified, the upbeat dance music of ska no longer spoke to the disaffected ‘sufferers’, and, by 1967, rocksteady had emerged as a much slower, downbeat and socially conscious music genre. Rocksteady was stripped of glossy jazz and brass elements in favour of voice, rhythm (featuring accented afterbeats on the guitar and drums) and bass (with ‘riddims’ (syncopated melodic/rhythmic lines) on the heavy electric bass).

Textually, rocksteady encompassed slow, tender love songs, but characteristic tropes also included politically charged calls for social change, justice and equality. As such, it represented the start of a new liberation movement in Jamaica, now relating to marginalisation along economic rather than racial lines. By 1968, the spirit of rebellion driving rocksteady was still going strong, but, with a sudden rise in the presence of Rastafarianism and its discourses on African roots, rocksteady started to fuse with traditional Jamaican influences (incl. the mento shuffle and Rastafarian (Buru/nyabinghi) drumming rhythms) as well as new African-American influences (e.g. vocal timbres from soul and guitar timbres from funk). This resulted in a slower beat, with an arresting counterpoint between heavy drum and bass on the downbeat and accented heartbeats patterns (..XX..XX) or sharp strikes (..X…X.) from the rhythm section on the afterbeat, which became the signature of a new style and genre: reggae.

Since its birth in the late 1960s, reggae (thought to be from derived from ‘regular’ i.e. ‘of the people’, or  ‘rebel’, ‘of the ghetto’) has exploded into a vast range of different styles, tempos and themes (from simple love songs to songs of radical political critique). Some of its common tendencies include merging of ‘African’ rhythms, ‘Western’ melodies/harmonies and ‘Jamaicanisms’ (incl. sharp wit, wordplay, social consciousness and Rastafarian tropes), expression of the sociopolitical contexts of the ‘sufferers’ of Jamaica and, especially in later reggae, pan-African liberatory politics and globalist perspective. Despite its mediation, its global success and its grand role as the voice of the dispossessed all over the world, especially in Africa, reggae remained a fundamental social music in Jamaica itself, enjoyed and danced to at parties and social gathering via mobile sound systems, with its characteristic mood embodied in the word ‘jammin’’ (a hit song; to participate and have fun at a party or social gathering; a festival or celebration; to dance and have a good time).

Offshoots of reggae have also cultivated a huge variety of new musical styles in Jamaica: ‘dub’ placed an even greater emphasis on heavy bass and introduced elaborate studio production techniques to enhance reggae for sound systems, and also introduced the practices of ‘rapping’ (where DJs would dub comic or socially conscious lyrics over the track) and ‘versions’ (where DJs would remix or rework original tunes using new sounds, rhythms, singers, etc), which actually predated and prefigured the subsequent global trends in Western popular music; ‘roots reggae’ returned to a far ‘dreader’ approach to reggae focused on African roots, Rastafarian themes and apposite political consciousness; and newer dance forms, including dancehall and ragga (from ‘raggamuffin’), have developed faster, highly danceable pop styles from the reggae soundworld and beat using primarily digitized instruments, often featuring braggadocio and ‘slackness’ (obscene) themes (e.g. sex, money, crime, decadence, etc.) but also sometimes drawing on mento tropes, even African-derived traditional Jamaican rhythms. Today, reggae is amongst only a handful of musical trends to have become truly global as pervasively as Anglo-American popular musics, and as a musical, cultural and political phenomenon, it carries the spirit of Jamaican music all around the world.

James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017


Sources & Reading Suggestions

‘Jamaica’s Heritage in Dance and Music’ [Online Resource], <>.

Mento Music [Online Resource], <>.

Miss Lou: Then and Now [Documentary Film] (Literature Alive, 2005).

Portraits of Jamaican Music [Documentary Film] (Passage, 2003).

Reggae: The Story of Jamaican Music [Documentary Film] (BBC, 2004).

Rise Up! [Documentary Film] (I1 Media, 2009).

Roots Rock Reggae [Documentary Film] (Beats Heart, 1979).

Roots, Reggae, Rebellion [Documentary Film] (BBC, 2016).

The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry [Documentary Film] (The Upsetter Films, 2011).

United Reggae [Online Resource], <>.

Alleyne, Mervyn, Roots of Jamaican Culture (London: Pluto, 1989).

Barrow, Steve, The Story of Jamaican Music: Tougher than Tough (London: Island Records, 1993).

Bilby, Kenneth, ‘Drums of Defiance: Maroon Music from the Earliest Free Black Communities of Jamaica’, Smithsonian Folkways Online, 1992, <>.

Buisseret, David et al., ‘Jamaica’, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2016, <>

Burnett, Michael, Jamaican Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Clarke, Sebastian, Jah Music: the Evolution of the Popular Jamaican Song (London: Heinemann, 1983).

Coester, Markus and Wolfgang Bender, A reader in African-Jamaican music, dance and religion(Kingston: Ian Randle, 2015).

Constantinides, John, ‘The Sound System: Contributions to Jamaican Music’, <>.

Cuthbert, Marlene, ‘Cultural Autonomy and Popular Music: A Survey of Jamaican Youth’, Communication Research, 12 (1985).

Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon, Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music of Jamaica(New York: Da Capo, 1992).

Davis, Stephen, ‘Reggae, Grove Music Online, 2017, <>.

Harries, John, ‘Reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry’s lessons in good music as good magic’, The Conversation, 19 July 2016, <>.

Hebdige, Dick, Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (London: Methuen, 1987).

Henriques, Julian,Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques and Ways of Knowing (New York: Continuum, 2011).

Hitchins, Ray, Vibe merchants: the sound creators of Jamaican popular music(London: Routledge, 2016).

Horan, Tom, ‘How Jamaica conquered the world’, The Guardian Online, 5 August 2012, <>.

Jekyll, Walter, Jamaican Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes(London: Folklore Society, 1907).

Johnson, Howard and Jim Pines, Reggae: Deep Roots Music (London: Proteus, 1982).

Jonze, Tim, ‘In Jamaica with reggae’s legends’, The Guardian Online, 9 March 2017, <>.

Kimberling, Clark, ‘Historical Notes: African-American and Jamaican Melodies’, IMSLP, <>.

Lesser, Beth,Dancehall: the rise of Jamaican dancehall culture(London: Soul Jazz, 2008).

Lewin, Olive and Maurice Gordon, ‘Jamaica’, Grove Music Online, 2017, <>.

Lewin, Olive, ‘Traditional Jamaican Music: Mento’, Jamaica, 26 (1998).

Lewin, Olive, Forty Folk Songs of Jamaica (Washington: OAS, 1973).

Lipsitz, George, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (London: Verso, 1994).

Maganga, Stewart, ‘Under the influence of…Bob Marley, the timeless music man’, The Conversation, 3 August 2016, <>.

Manuel, Peter and Michael Largey, Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Philadelphia: Temple, 2016).

McKnight, Cathy and John Tobler, Bob Marley and the Roots of Reggae(London: Allen & Co., 1977).

Neely, Daniel, Olive Lewin and Gage Averill, ‘Jamaican Traditional Music’, in Bruno Nettl et al., The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (London: Garland, 1998).

O’Brien Chang, Kevin and Wayne Chen, Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music (Philadelphia: Temple, 2014).

Potash, Chris, Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub(New York: Schirmer, 1997).

Prahlad, Swami, Reggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001).

Serju, Christopher, ‘Olive Lewin Worked Tirelessly to Preserve the Spirit of Jamaica’, Jamaica GleanerOnline, 27 September 2015, <>.

Sullivan, Paul, Remixology: Tracing the Dub Diaspora (London: Reaktion, 2014).

Veal, Michael, Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (Middletown Wesleyan University Press, 2007).

Wallis, Roger and Krister Malm, Big Sounds from Small Peoples: the Music Industry in Small Countries(New York: Pendragon, 1984).

Weber, Tom and Brian Jahn, Reggae Island: Jamaican Music in the Digital Age (Kingston: LMH, 2002).

White, Garth, ‘The Evolution of Jamaican Music: “Proto-Ska” to Ska’, Reggae Studies, 47 (1998).

Witmer, Robert, Local” and “Foreign”: the Popular Music Culture of Kingston, Jamaica, Before Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae’, Latin American Music Review, 8 (1987).

Sources of Images

Header Image: Flickr

Map of Jamaica: Britannica

Old Port Royal: Golden Age of Piracy

Marcus Garvey: The Voice Online

Jamaican workers singing ‘digging songs’: Smithsonian

Quadrille in Jamaica: Caspar James, Culture Crossroads

Go Down a Emmanuel, stone passing: YouTube

Port Maria Jonkonnus: Paul H. Williams, The Gleaner

Bruckins dances: Marry Caribbean

Moore Town Maroon Community: UNESCO

Emmanuel Apostolic Church, Portmore: Tyrone Reid, The Gleaner

Kumina:National Library of Jamaica

Rastafarian Sabbath celebration: diGJamaica

Rastafari chanting and drumming: Caribbean Rastafari Organization

Jolly Boys 1964 mento music: Mento Music

Jamaican ska: The Skatalites, Discogs

Prince Buster ska party: Jerry Dammers, The Guardian

Alton Ellis- Rock Steady: Biko Kennedy,

Desmond Dekker: Biko Kennedy,

The Wailing Wailers: The Wailers, Discogs

Lee “Scratch” Perry: Marlon Regis,