A brief history of jamaican music

18th & 19th Centuries

The West African polyrhythms used in religous rites and European harmonic structure, often derived from Anglican hymnody, merged with East Indian Islamic and Hindu styles to form the polyglot base of Jamaican music.


1930s to 1940s

Calypso predominates with its political messages, sexual innuedo, "news-of-the-day" topically, and charged rhythmic attack. The more folkish mento style (which incorporates traditional British folk songs) emerges, often with lewd lyrics.



Beamed to the island from powerful New Orleans radio stations, American R&B - from Professor Longhair and Louis Jordan, to Fats Domino and the Moonglows - becomes popular in Jamaica. Unable to afford imported records, Jamaicans hear the hits on portable sound systems pioneered by such deejays as Dude Reid ("The Trojan"), Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, and "Prince Buster Campbell.

1960 to 1968

As bland pop and the early British Invasion take hold in America, Jamaicans begin developing their own sound. The result is ska, a mixture of mento, R&B, boogie-woogie, and jazz. Also known as Jamaican R&B, ska accents the second and fourth drumbeats (the swing and blues notes), while the guitar emphasizes the second, third, and fourth beats (the mento rhythm). Kingston becomes a recording center and club mecca for ska music, while the sound-system deejays - forefathers to the more recent dancehall artists - entertain at riotous parties.


On August 5, Jamaica becomes a free nation, drawing rural migrants to the cities in seach for work. Like Motown to American youth, ska becomes the music of young Jamaicans who are disenfranchised by the lack of jobs and growing problems in cities like Kingston.


The flamboyant and cavalier rube-boy style develops, its rock'n'roll-like attitude and fashion predating the gangsta rap and dancehall era by two decades. Chief among rude-boy rulers are a teenage group called the Wailing Wailers, featuring Bob Marley, who record their first hit," Simmer Down." A parallel ska scene, called bluebeat, named after Melodisc Blue Beat label, becomes popular in the U.K.'s West Indian community.


The East London ghetto, populated by many expatriate Jamaicans, is the source of the international hit "My Boy Lollipo," sung by Jamaican Millie Small and produced by Chris Blackwell for the then-small Island Label. The record's amazing success spawns hundreds of less sucessful ska and bluebeat singles.

1966 to 1971

Ska loses its quick, jerky rhythmic pace during the extremely hot, dry Jamaican summer of 1966. The result is a more temperate rhythmic attack and accompanying dance called rock steady, which focuses on bass, rhythm guitar, organ, and drums, with a greater accent on singers and more substantial lyrics.


A new dance emerges that is slower than rock steady and almost hypnotic in its rhythmic redundancies: Toots and the Maytals record "Do the Reggay," though it takes a few skanking years before everyone does.


Rock Steady records are released by labels like Duke Reid's Treasure Isle, Studio One, and Amalgated, including the Paragons' "The Tide is High" (a hit for Blondie in 1980), and Desmond Dekker's international smash" Israelites."

The Maytals check in with a classic reggae anthem, "Pressure Drop," produced by Leslie Kong, the influencial Chinese-Jamaican whose label, Beverly Records, launched many reggae hits until his death at 38.


Perry Henzell's Film, The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, is released with an empeccable reggae soundtrack featuring Cliff, Dekker's" 007 (Shanty Town)," and Toots and the Maytal's "Pressure Drop."


Bob Marley and the Wailers' debut American Album, Catch A Fire, is released to an avalanche of critical acclaim.


Burning Spear, with lead vocalist Winston Rodney, records two incendiary singles, "Marcus Garvey" and "Slavery Days." Laying out the Rastafarian view of history and the African race in the West, the group embodies the evolving musical and lyrical militance of reggae prevalent until Marley's death.

Eric Clapton sends "I shot the Sheriff" to the top the charts, although its reggae effects are much more sanitized that the Wailer's 1973 original.

With natty Dread and the succeeding Rastaman Vibration in 1976, the Wailers play to a growing international audience, as the band sharpens its lyrics and beliefs.


The Mighty Diamonds, one of Jamaica's leading vocal trios, releases Right Time, a brilliant record that embraces the Rasta-Jamaican rhetoric and sweet harmonies that predate the lover's rock of Gregory Isaac and Dennis Brown.


The rude-boy style comes back with a vengence in England, as social ills and the punk movement feed off each other. Among the groups playing new and classic ska music are the English Beat, the Specials, and Madness.

British punk band Clash expands its music focus by successfully incorporating reggae and dub, which becomes its own genre led by Mike Dread and Lee "Scratch" Perry.


Londoner Linton Kwesi Johnson, an expatriate Jamaican poet and community organizer, issues Dread Beat an' Blood,the first of many essential and compelling works.

Steel Pulse emerges as another British band enjoying critical and commercial success with Handsworth Revolution.


Drummer Sly Dunbar and Bassit Robbie Shakespeare emerges as a dynamic production team and rhythm section on Black Uhuru's compelling debut album, Showcase. The duo goes on to back American artists such as Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, and Joe Cocker.


On May 11, Bob Marley dies of cancer in a Miami hospital en route to Jamaica, "the land of wood and water."


Deejays and toasters (rappers) emerge from Jamaica and British dancehalls with more sophisticated sound systems and gangsta raps. Chief among them are Yellowman, Eek-A-Mouse, Super Cat and Shabba Ranks.


Ranks wins a grammy for Best Reggae Performance for his charged dancehall record, As Raw as Ever, which relies on X-rated lyrics, or "Slackness," for part of its appeal. The bellicose rap 'n' reggae style has become fashionable in cities across the world.



One Love, the Bob Marley All-Star tribute concert. Courtesy of PALMPICTURES


Bob Marley's song "One Love" was chosen as the anthem of the millennium by the BBC. Time Magazine Chose Exodus as the best album of the 20th century.

Jack Healey, the president of Amnesty International, said that everywhere he goes in the world today, Bob Marley is "the symbol of freedom." Courtesy of REBEL MUSIC