History of Jamaican MusicThe history of Jamaican music is inextricably intertwined with the history of the Jamaican people. Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean, and was initially populated by the Arawak people. Christopher Columbus "discovered" the island on his second voyage to the Americas, and it was settled first by Spanish colonists, and later by English colonists. It became a major hub for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and sugarcane production, and because of the high population of Africans and people of African descent on the island of Jamaica, it was the site of multiple slave uprisings, many of which were successful, resulting in the establishment of long-term Maroon (escaped slave) colonies, some of which lasted until the British Empire's abolition of slavery in 1832. The large numbers of Africans also helped to keep a high level of African cultural elements, including musical styles, alive in Jamaica throughout the colonial era.
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African Elements in Jamaican MusicThese African musical elements formed the basis of Jamaican music as we know it. The one-drop rhythm, which is the defining rhythmic element of reggae music, is distinctly African. The call-and-response style of singing which is so common in West African music is reflected in many genres of Jamaican music, and even forms the basis for toasting which, in turn, forms the basis for rap music. Even the language of African-descended Jamaicans is reflected in Jamaican music, much of which is sung in patois, a Creole language with both African and English linguistic elements.
European Elements in Jamaican MusicEnglish and other European influences are also apparent in Jamaican music. During the colonial era, black slave musicians were expected to play the popular music of Europe for their European masters. Thus, slave bands would perform waltzes, quadrilles and other figure dances, reels, and many other dances and song styles. These song styles remained present and intact in black Jamaican folk music right up until the middle of the 20th century.
Early Jamaican Folk MusicThe first folklorist to collect and categorize Jamaican folk songs was a man named Walter Jekyll, whose 1904 book Jamaican Song and Story is in the public domain and available to read for free or download as a PDF from Google Books. Though the book is a bit dated, it's a wealth of information, and the earliest scientifically-collected grouping of Jamaican songs and stories, as well as the elements that made up Jamaican music at that time.
Mento MusicBy the late 1940s, mento music arose as a unique style of Jamaican music. Mento is similar to Trinidadian calypso and, indeed, is sometimes referred to as Jamaican calypso, but it is indeed a genre unto itelf. It features a fair balance of African and European elements, and is played with acoustic instruments, including banjo, guitar, and the rumba box, which a large-scale bass lamellophone (kind of like a giant mbira which the player sits upon while playing). One of the most fun aspects of mento music is the lyrical content, which frequently features extended bawdy double entendres and political innuendo.
Ska MusicIn the early 1960s, ska music took shape. Combining traditional mento with elements of American R&B and boogie-woogie, which was immensely popular in Jamaica at the time, ska was a soulful genre which featured harmony singing, upbeat and danceable rhythms, a horn section, and songs that are frequently about love. The emergence of ska occurred at the same time as the emergence of rude boy culture, wherein impoverished Jamaican youths emulated an old-school American-style gangster aesthetic. Competing gangs of rude boys were hired by sound system operators like Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Lesley Kong to start fights at the street dances of competing sound system operators.
Listen: Essential Traditional Ska Starter CDs
Rocksteady MusicRocksteady was a short-lived but influential genre of Jamaican music that came about in the middle to late 1960s, which differed from ska with a slowed-down beat and, often, a lack of a horn section. Rocksteady quickly evolved into reggae music.
Reggae MusicReggae music emerged in the late 1960s, and went on to become the genre of music that most people identify with the music of Jamaica. Reggae, particularly roots reggae, was heavily influenced by Rastafarianism, both lyrically and musically, with nyabinghi drumming and socially conscious (and often Pan-African) lyrics re-injecting the music with the distinct sounds of Africa. Dub music is an offshoot of reggae, which features producers remixing reggae songs, usually adding heavy bass lines and re-processed instrumental and vocal tracks. Important figures in reggae music include Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee "Scratch" Perry.
Listen: Essential Bob Marley CDs
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