Music of Jamaica

Template:Jamaicanmusic Jamaica is known as the birthplace of many popular musical genres including raggamuffin, ska, reggae and dub. Jamaica's music culture is a fusion of elements from the United States of America with its R&B, rock and roll, soul, Africa and neighbouring Caribbean islands such as Trinidad with its calypso. Jamaica's music has become popular across much of the world. Reggae's popularity is especially popular through the international fame of Bob Marley. Jamaican music has also had an effect on the musical development of other countries, such as the practice of toasting, which was brought to New York City and became rapping, one of the four elements of hip hop. British styles as Lovers rock and jungle also originate in Jamaican music.


Early 20th century

Junkanoo, (a type of folk music now more closely associated with The Bahamas), the quadrille (a European dance) and work songs were the primary forms of Jamaican music at the beginning of the 20th century. These were synthesized into mento music, which spread across the island. Mento was the first style of Jamaican music to be recorded.


Mento was recorded in the 1950s due to the efforts of Stanley Motta, who noted the similiarities between Jamaican folk and Trinidadian calypso, which was currently finding international audiences. While mento never found a large international audience as calypso had, some of these recordings, such as by Count Lasher, Lord Composer and George Moxey, are now widely-respected legends of Jamaican music. Though it has largely been supplanted by successors like reggae and dub, mento is still performed, recorded, and released internationally by traditionalist performers like the Jolly Boys.

Sound systems

In Kingston mobile sound systems began to grow up in the late forties who would play American hits. Some of the major figures of the Jamaican music scene came to the fore in association with sound systems during this period, including Duke Reid and Sir Coxsone. In 1958 due to a shortage of new material the first local R&B bands, most influentially Joe Higgs and Roy Wilson, began recording to fulfil the local demand for new music.


By 1964, a distinctive Jamaican music had sprung up based around the sound systems called ska, which was fast and danceable. Perhaps the best-known of the original ska wave were The Skatalites, whose career spanned decades. At first primarily instrumental, ska's rhythms generally didn't lend well to vocal stylings, though some popular artists such as The Maytals and The Wailers got their start by singing in this style.

Some of ska's fans were "rude boys", the local name for gangsters and petty thieves. Rude boys were anything from fashionable posuers to hard-edged, violent and misogynist thugs with nothing to lose in Jamaica's post-independence economic depression. Rude boys brought controversy to the ska scene and scorn from the island's almost entirely white middle- and upper-classes. The rude boys also garnered attention from politicians, who promised protection, gifts of weapons or other incentives to harness their political support or to employ them as thugs.


Along with the meteoric rise of ska came the popularity of DJs like Sir Lord Comic, King Stitt and pioneer Count Matchuki, who began talking stylistically over the rhythms of popular songs at sound systems. In Jamaican music, the DJ is the one who talks (known elsewhere as the MC) and the selector is the person who chooses the records. The popularity of DJs as an essential component of the sound system created a need for instrumental songs, as well as instrumental versions of popular vocal songs. From this arose the dub, originally an instrumental version of a vocal song, with the vocal version on the A-side and the dub on the B-side of a single. This trend began the development of dub music as a distinct genre, popular in its own right.

Island Records

Chris Blackwell's Island Records became the biggest label promoting Jamaican music to the international market. Due to afilliation with the record industry in the UK and First world funding, Island had the distribution to vastly increase exposure of reggae to the global pop market, especially in the UK where a significant population of Jamaican immigrants had relocated for economic opportunities not available at home. Blackwell's stable of artists included Millie Small, singer of the first major Jamaican music UK radio hit, 1964's "My Boy Lollipop."

Rastafari, rocksteady and foundations of dub

Ska's popularity grew steadily in Jamaica, alongside Rastafarianism, which spread rapidly in impoverished urban areas and among the often politically radical music scene. The lyrics of ska songs began to focus on Rastafarian themes; slower beats and chants entered the music from religious Rastafarian music, and ska soon evolved into rocksteady.

Rocksteady was the music of Jamaica's rude boys by the mid-1960s, when The Wailers and The Clarendonians dominated the charts, taking over from pioneers like Alton Ellis (who is often said to have invented rocksteady). Desmond Dekker's "007" brought international attention to the new urban beat. The mix put heavy emphasis on the bass line, as opposed to ska's strong horn section, and the rhythm guitar began playing on the up-beat. Session musicians like Supersonics, Soul Vendors, Jets and, most influentially, Jackie Mittoo (of the Skatalites) became legends during this period.

In the late 1960s, producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry began stripping the vocals away from tracks recorded for sound system parties. With the bare beats and bass playing and the lead instruments dropping in and out of the mix, DJs began toasting, or delivering humorous and often obscene jabs at fellow DJs and local celebrities. Over time, toasting became an increasingly complex activity, and became as big a draw as the dance beats played behind it. In the early 1970s, DJs such as DJ Kool Herc took the practice of toasting to New York, where it became a part of rapping.

1970s: Dub and reggae

By the early 1970s, rocksteady had evolved into reggae music. The style of music at the time is retroactively termed roots reggae and combines the influence of American soul music and the traditional shuffle and one-drop of Jamaican mento. Reggae quickly became one of the most popular forms of music in the world, due in large part to the immense international success of Bob Marley & the Wailers. Marley himself was viewed Rastafarian messianic figure by some fans, particularly throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and among Native Americans and Australian Aborigines. His lyrics on love, redemption and natural beauty captivated audiences, and he gained headlines for negotiating truces between rival gangs and, later, two violently warring Jamaican political parties (at the One Love Concert), led by Michael Manley (PNP) and Edward Seaga (JLP). Reggae music was intricately tied to the expansion of Rastafarian religion with its principles of pacifism, Zionism, and pan-Africanism. Musicians like Gregory Isaacs, The Congos and Burning Spear and producers like Lee "Scratch" Perry solidified the early sound of reggae.

By 1973, dub music had emerged as a distinct reggae sub-genre and heralded the dawn of the remix. Most influentially invented by record producers Lee Perry and King Tubby, dub featured previously recorded songs remixed with prominence on the bass. Often the lead instruments and vocals would drop in and out of the mix, sometimes processed heavily with studio effects. King Tubby's advantage came from his intimate knowledge with audio gear, and his ability to build his own sound systems and recording studios that were superior to the competition. He became famous for his remixes of recordings made by others as well as those he recorded in his own studio.

Following in Tubby's footsteps came pioneers, beginning with U-Roy, and then Big Youth, who used Rasta chants in songs. Until the end of the 70s, Big Youth-inspired dub with chanted vocals dominated Jamaican pop. At the very end of the decade, dancehall like Ranking Joe, Lone Ranger and General Echo brought a return to U-Roy's style.

Other popular music forms that arose during the period include:

In the later part of the 1970s, Brit Louisa Marks had a hit with "Caught You in a Lie" (1975 in music), beginning a trend of British performers making romantic, ballad-oriented reggae called lovers rock.

1980s: Dancehall and ragga

During the 1980s, the most popular musical styles in Jamaica were dancehall and ragga. 'Dancehall' is essentially reggae music with a basic rock drum beat (more often played on electric drums rather than acoustic) and pop lyrics rather than the former political and spiritual lyrics popular in the 1970s. Ragga is characterized by the use of computerized beats and sequenced melodic tracks in reggae songs. Ragga is usually said to have been invented with "Under Mi Sleng Teng" by Wayne Smith (1985 in music). Ragga barely edged out dancehall as the dominant form of Jamaican music in the 1980s. DJ and vocalist team Chaka Demus and Shabba Ranks proved more enduring than the competition, and helped inspire an updated version of the rudeboy culture called raggamuffin. Dancehall was sometimes violent in lyrical content, and several rival performers made headlines with their feuds across Jamaica (most notably Beenie Man vs Bounty Killer). Dancehall emerged from pioneering recordings in the late 1970s by Barrington Levy with Roots Radics backing and Junjo Lawes as producer. The Roots Radics were the pre-eminent backing band for dancehall style. Yellowman, Ini Kamoze, Charlie Chaplin and General Echo helped popularize the style along with producers like Sugar Minott.

The 1980s saw a rise in reggae music from outside of Jamaica. The UK has long been a hotbed of Jamaican culture in exile, due to a large number of Jamaican immigrants seeking economic betterment. Reggae and ska influenced American and British punk bands of the 1970s and 1980s, such as The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Police and Nina Hagen. Bands including The Specials and Madness became popular with the British ska revival called two tone. During this time, reggae particularly influenced African popular music, where Sonny Okusuns (Nigeria), John Chibadura (Zimbabwe), Lucky Dube (South Africa) and Alpha Blondy (Ivory Coast) became stars.

The 1980s also saw the end of the dub era in Jamaica, though dub has remained a popular and influential style in the UK and to a lesser extent throughout Europe and the US. Dub in the 1980s and 1990s has merged with electronic music for a mingling of styles.

1990s into present

Variations of dancehall continued in popularity into the mid-1990s. Some of the most violent performers of the previous decade converted to Rastafarianism or otherwise changed their lyrical contents. Artists like Buju Banton (Till Shiloh) experienced significant crossover success in foreign markets, while Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and others developed a sizable American following due to their frequent guesting on albums by gangsta rappers like Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z. Some ragga musicians, including Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks and Capleton, publicly converted to a new style of conscious music-making. Other trends included the minimalist digital tracks which began with Dave Kelly's "Pepper Seed" in 1995, alongside the return of love balladeers like Beres Hammond.

American punk ska bands like No Doubt, Mighty, Mighty Bosstones and Sublime became popular in the mid-1990s influenced by 1980s pioneers like Operation Ivy. American, British, and European electronic musicians used reggae-oriented beats to create further hybrid electronic music styles. Dub, world music, and electronic music continue to intertwine, influence each other, and create new sub-genres into the 2000s.

Religious music

Main article: Religious music

The Bongo Nation is a distinct group of Jamaicans descended from indentured servants. They are known for Kumina, which refers to both a religion and a form of music. Kumina’s distinctive drumming style became one of the roots of Rastafarian drumming, itself the source of the distinctive Jamaican rhythm heard in ska, rocksteady and reggae.

The modern intertwining of Jamaican religion and music can be traced back to the 1860s, when the Pocomania and Revival Zion churches drew on African and Christian traditions and incorporated music into almost every facet of worship. Later, this trend spread into Hindu communities, made up of the many coolies (ethnic Indians on the island), resulting in baccra music. The spread of Rastafarianism into urban Jamaica in the 1960s transformed the Jamaican music scene, which incorporated nyabhingi drumming, played at grounation ceremonies into popular music.


  • Mthembu-Salter, Gregory and Peter Dalton. "The Loudest Island in the World". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 430-456. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Mthembu-Salter, Gregory and Peter Dalton. "Lovers and Poets -- Babylon Sounds". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 457-462. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • O'Brien Chang, Kevin and Wayne Chen. Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music. Temple University Press. Philadelphia.
  • Jahn, Brian and Tom Weber. Reggae Island: Jamaican Music in the Digital Age. Da Capo Press. Kingston. ISBN 0-306-80853-6

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