Reggae to the World!
Reggae developed from mento, R&B, and Ska music in the 1960s. The shift from rocksteady to reggae was illustrated by the organ shuffle pioneered by Jamaican musicians like Jackie Mittoo and Winston Wright and featured in transitional singles “Say What You’re Saying” (1967) by Clancy Eccles and “People Funny Boy” (1968) by Lee “Scratch” Perry. The Pioneers’ 1968 track “Long Shot (Bus’ Me Bet)” has been identified as the earliest recorded example of the new rhythm sound that became known as reggae.
Early 1968 was when the first genuine reggae records were released: “Nanny Goat” by Larry Marshall and “No More Heartaches” by The Beltones. American artist Johnny Nash’s 1968 hit “Hold Me Tight” has been credited with first putting reggae in the American listener charts. Around that time, reggae influences were starting to surface in rock and pop music, one example being 1968’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles.
The Wailers, a band started by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1963, is perhaps the most recognized band that made the transition through all three stages of early Jamaican popular music: ska, rocksteady and reggae. Other significant reggae pioneers include Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker and Ken Boothe.
Notable Jamaican producers influential in the development of ska into rocksteady and reggae include: Coxsone Dodd, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Leslie Kong, Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs and King Tubby. Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1960, relocated to England in 1962, where he continued to promote Jamaican music. He formed a partnership with Lee Gopthal’s Trojan Records in 1968, which released reggae in the UK until bought by Saga records in 1974.
Reggae influence bubbled to the top of the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts in late 1972. First Three Dog Night hit #1 in September with a cover of the Maytones’ version of “Black and White”. Then Johnny Nash was at #1 for four weeks in November with “I Can See Clearly Now”.
In 1973, the film The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff was released and introduced Jamaican music to cinema audiences outside of Jamaica. Though the film achieved cult status its limited appeal meant that it had a smaller impact than Eric Clapton’s 1974 cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” which made it onto the playlists of mainstream rock and pop radio stations worldwide. Clapton’s “I Shot The Sheriff” used modern rock production and recording techniques and faithfully retained most of the original reggae elements; it was a breakthrough pastiche devoid of any parody and played an important part in bringing the music of Bob Marley to a wider rock audience. By the mid-1970s, authentic reggae dub plates and specials were getting some exposure in the UK on John Peel’s radio show, who promoted the genre for the rest of his career. Around the same time, British filmmaker Jeremy Marre documented the Jamaican music scene in Roots Rock Reggae, capturing the heyday of roots reggae.
In the second half of the 1970s, the UK punk rock scene was starting to form, and reggae was a notable influence. The DJ Don Letts would play reggae and punk tracks at clubs such as The Roxy. Punk bands such as The Clash. The Ruts. The Members and The Slits played many reggae-influenced songs. Around the same time, reggae music took a new path in the UK; one that was created by the multiracial makeup of England’s inner cities and exemplified by groups like Steel Pulse, Aswad and UB40, as well as artists such as Smiley Culture and Carroll Thompson. The Jamaican ghetto themes in the lyrics were replaced with UK inner city themes, and Jamaican patois became intermingled with Cockney slang. In South London around this time, a new subgenre of Lovers Rock, was being created. Unlike the Jamaican music of the same name which was mainly dominated by male artists such as Gregory Isaacs, the South London genre was led by female singers like Thompson and Janet Kay. The UK Lovers Rock had a softer and more commercial sound.
Other reggae artists who enjoyed international appeal in the early 1980s include Third World, Black Uhuru and Sugar Minott. The Grammy Awards introduced the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album category in 1985.
Stylistically, reggae incorporates some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, mento, calypso, African, and Latin American music, as well as other genres.
Reggae is played in 4/4 time because the symmetrical rhythmic pattern does not lend itself to other time signatures such as 3/4 time. One of the most easily recognizable elements is offbeat rhythms; staccato chords played by a guitar or piano (or both) on the offbeats of the measure, often referred to as the skank. This rhythmic pattern accents the second and fourth beats in each bar and combines with the drum’s emphasis on beat three to create a unique sense of phrasing. The reggae offbeat can be counted so that it falls between each count as an “and” (example: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and etc.) or counted as a half-time feel at twice the tempo so it falls on beats 2 and 4. This is in contrast to the way most other popular genres focus on beat one, the “downbeat”.
The tempo of reggae is usually slower than ska and rocksteady. It is this slower tempo, the guitar/piano offbeats, the emphasis on the third beat, and the use of syncopated, melodic bass lines that differentiate reggae from other music, although other musical styles have incorporated some of these innovations.
Harmonically the music is essentially the same as any other modern popular genre with a tendency to make use of simple chord progressions. Reggae sometimes uses the dominant chord in its minor form therefore never allowing a perfect cadence to be sounded; this lack of resolution between the tonic and the dominant imparts a sense of movement “without rest” and harmonic ambiguity. Extended chords like the major 7th (“Waiting in Vain” by Bob Marley) and minor 7th are used though suspended chords or diminished chords are rare. Minor keys are commonly used especially with the minor chord forms of the subdominant and dominant chord (for example in the key of G minor the progression may be played Gm – Dm – Gm – Dm – Cm – Dm – Cm – Dm). A simple progression borrowed from rhythm ‘n blues and soul music is the tonic chord followed by the minor supertonic chord with the two chords repeated continuously to form a complete verse (“Just My Imagination” by The Temptations C – Dm7).
The concept of “call and response” can be found throughout reggae music, in the vocals but also in the way parts are composed and arranged for each instrument. The emphasis on the “third beat” of the bar also results in a different sense of musical phrasing, with bass lines and melody lines often emphasizing what might be considered “pick up notes” in other genres.
A standard drum kit is generally used in reggae, but the snare drum is often tuned very high to give it a timbales-type sound. Some reggae drummers use an additional timbale or high-tuned snare to get this sound. Cross-stick technique on the snare drum is commonly used, and tom-tom drums are often incorporated into the drumbeat itself.
Reggae drumbeats fall into three main categories: One drop, Rockers, and Steppers. With the One drop, the emphasis is entirely on the third beat of the bar (usually on the snare, or as a rim shot combined with bass drum). Beat one is empty except for a closed high hat commonly used, which is unusual in popular music. There is some controversy about whether reggae should be counted so that this beat falls on three, or whether it should be counted half as fast, so it falls on two and four. An example played by Barrett can be heard in the Bob Marley and the Wailers song “One Drop”. Barrett often used an unusual triplet cross-rhythm on the hi-hat, which can be heard on many recordings by Bob Marley and the Wailers, such as “Running Away” on the Kaya album.
An emphasis on beat three is in all reggae drumbeats, but with the Rockers beat, the emphasis is also on beat one (usually on bass drum). This beat was pioneered by Sly and Robbie, who later helped create the “Rub-a-Dub” sound that greatly influenced dancehall. Sly has openly stated he was influenced to create this style by listening to American drummer Earl Young as well as other disco and R&B drummers in the early to mid-1970s, as stated in the book “Wailing Blues”. The prototypical example of the style is found in Sly Dunbar’s drumming on “Right Time” by the Mighty Diamonds. The Rockers beat is not always straightforward, and various syncopations are often included. An example of this is the Black Uhuru song “Sponji Reggae”.
In Steppers, the bass drum plays four solid beats to the bar, giving the beat an insistent drive. An example is “Exodus” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Another common name for the Steppers beat is the “four on the floor”. Burning Spear’s 1975 song “Red, Gold, and Green” (with Leroy Wallace on drums) is one of the earliest examples. The Steppers beat was adopted (at a much higher tempo) by some 2 Tone ska revival bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Also one of the ancestors of reggae drumming is Nyabinghi rhythm.
An unusual characteristic of reggae drumming is that the drum fills often do not end with a climactic cymbal. A wide range of other percussion instrumentation are used in reggae. Bongos are often used to play free, improvised patterns, with heavy use of African-style cross-rhythms. Cowbells, claves and shakers tend to have more defined roles and a set pattern.
The bass guitar often plays the dominant role in reggae, and the drum and bass is often the most important part of what is called, in Jamaican music, a riddim (rhythm), a (usually simple) piece of music that’s used repeatedly by different artists to write and record songs with. Literally hundreds of reggae singers have released different songs recorded over the same rhythm. The central role of the bass can be particularly heard in dub music — which gives an even bigger role to the drum and bass line, reducing the vocals and other instruments to peripheral roles.
The bass sound in reggae is thick and heavy, and equalized so the upper frequencies are removed and the lower frequencies emphasized. The bass line is often a repeated two or four bar riff when simple chord progressions are used. The simplest example of this might be Robbie Shakespeare’s bass line for the Black Uhuru hit “Shine Eye Gal”. In the case of more complex harmonic structures, such as John Holt’s version of “Stranger In Love”, these simpler patterns are altered to follow the chord progression either by directly moving the pattern around or by changing some of the interior notes in the phrase to better support the chords.
The guitar in reggae usually plays on the off beat of the rhythm. So if one is counting in 4/4 time and counting 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +, one would play a downstroke on the “and” part of the beat. A musical figure known as skank or the ‘bang” has a very dampened, short and scratchy chop sound, almost like a percussion instrument. Sometimes a double chop is used when the guitar still plays the off beats, but also plays the following 8th beats on the up-stroke. An example is the intro to “Stir It Up” by The Wailers. Artist and producer Derrick Harriott says, “What happened was the musical thing was real widespread, but only among a certain sort of people. It was always a down-town thing, but more than just hearing the music. The equipment was so powerful and the vibe so strong that we feel it.
From the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, a piano was often used in reggae to double the rhythm guitar’s skank, playing the chords in a staccato style to add body, and playing occasional extra beats, runs and riffs. The piano part was widely taken over by synthesizers during the 1980s, although synthesizers have been used in a peripheral role since the 1970s to play incidental melodies and countermelodies. Larger bands may include either an additional keyboardist, to cover or replace horn and melody lines, or the main keyboardist filling these roles on two or more keyboards.
The reggae organ-shuffle is unique to reggae. Typically, a Hammond organ-style sound is used to play chords with a choppy feel. This is known as the bubble. This may be the most difficult reggae keyboard rhythm. The organ bubble can be broken down into 2 basic patterns. In the first, the 8th beats are played with a space-left-right-left-space-left-right-left pattern, where the spaces represent downbeats not played—that and the left-right-left falls on the ee-and-a, or and-2-and if counted at double time. In the second basic pattern, the left hand plays a double chop as described in the guitar section while the right hand plays longer notes on beat 2 (or beat 3 if counted at double time) or a syncopated pattern between the double chops. Both these patterns can be expanded on and improvised embellishments are sometimes used.
Horn sections are frequently used in reggae, often playing introductions and counter-melodies. Instruments included in a typical reggae horn section include saxophone, trumpet or trombone. In more recent times, real horns are sometimes replaced in reggae by synthesizers or recorded samples. The horn section is often arranged around the first horn, playing a simple melody or counter melody. The first horn is usually accompanied by the second horn playing the same melodic phrase in unison, one octave higher. The third horn usually plays the melody an octave and a fifth higher than the first horn. The horns are generally played fairly softly, usually resulting in a soothing sound. However, sometimes punchier, louder phrases are played for a more up-tempo and aggressive sound.
The vocals in reggae are less of a defining characteristic of the genre than the instrumentation and rhythm, as almost any song can be performed in a reggae style. However, it is very common for reggae to be sung in Jamaican Patois, Jamaican English, and Iyaric dialects. Vocal harmony parts are often used, either throughout the melody (as with vocal groups such as the Mighty Diamonds), or as a counterpoint to the main vocal line (as with the backing vocalists, the I-Threes). More complex vocal arrangements can be found in the works of groups like The Abyssinians and British reggae band Steel Pulse.
An unusual aspect of reggae singing is that many singers use tremolo (volume oscillation) rather than vibrato (pitch oscillation). Notable exponents of this technique include Horace Andy and vocal group Israel Vibration. The toasting vocal style is unique to reggae, originating when DJs improvised spoken introductions to songs (or “toasts”) to the point where it became a distinct rhythmic vocal style, and is generally considered to be a precursor to rap. It differs from rap mainly in that it is generally melodic, while rap is generally more a spoken form without melodic content.
Reggae is noted for its tradition of social criticism in its lyrics, although many reggae songs discuss lighter, more personal subjects, such as love and socializing. Many early reggae bands covered Motown or Atlantic soul and funk songs. Some reggae lyrics attempt to raise the political consciousness of the audience, such as by criticizing materialism, or by informing the listener about controversial subjects such as Apartheid. Many reggae songs promote the use of cannabis (also known as herb, ganja, or sinsemilla), considered a sacrament in the Rastafari movement. There are many artists who utilize religious themes in their music — whether it be discussing a specific religious topic, or simply giving praise to God (Jah). Other common socio-political topics in reggae songs include black nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism and criticism of political systems and “Babylon”.
Reggae has spread to many countries across the world, often incorporating local instruments and fusing with other genres.
Reggae en Español spread from mainland South American Caribbean from Venezuela and Guyana to the rest of South America. It does not have any specific characteristics other than being sung in Spanish, usually by artists of Latin American origin. Samba reggae originated in Brazil as a blend of samba with Jamaican reggae.
In the United States, bands like Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid, and SOJA are considered progressive reggae bands. For decades, Hawaiian reggae has had a big following on the Hawaiian islands and the West coast of the US. In recent years, Matisyahu gained prominence by blending traditional Jewish themes with reggae. Compounding his use of the hazzan style, Matisyahu’s lyrics are mostly English with more than occasional use of Hebrew and Yiddish.
The UK was a primary destination for Caribbean people looking to emigrate as early as the 1950s. Because of this, Caribbean music in the United Kingdom, including reggae, has been popular since the late 1960s, and has evolved into several sub-genres and fusions. Most notable of these is lovers rock, but this fusion of Caribbean music into English culture was seminal in the formation of other musical forms like drum and bass and dubstep. The UK became the base from which many Jamaican artists toured Europe and due to the large number of Jamaican musicians emigrating there, the UK is the root of the larger European scene that exists today. Many of the world’s most famous reggae artists began their careers in UK Singer and Grammy Award winning reggae artist Maxi Priest began his career with seminal British sound system Saxon Studio International. Also British reggae is played by UB40 and Ali Campbell.
Other UK based artists that had international impact include Misty In Roots, Janet Kay, Tippa Irie, Smiley Culture and more recently Bitty McLean. There have been a number of European artists and bands drawing their inspiration directly from Jamaica and the Caribbean community in Europe, whose music and vocal styles are almost identical to contemporary Jamaican music. The best examples might be Alborosie (Italy) and Gentleman (Germany). Both Gentleman and Alborosie have had a significant chart impact in Jamaica, unlike many European artists. They have both recorded and released music in Jamaica for Jamaican labels and producers and are popular artists, likely to appear on many riddims. Alborosie has lived in Jamaica since the late 1990s and has recorded at Bob Marley’s famous Tuff Gong Studios. Since the early 1990s, several Italian reggae bands have emerged, including Sud Sound System, Pitura Freska and B.R. Stylers. Another Italian famous reggae singer was Rino Gaetano.
In Iceland reggae band Hjálmar is well established having released six CDs in Iceland. They were the first reggae band in Iceland, but few Icelandic artists had written songs in the reggae style before their showing up at the Icelandic music scene. The Icelandic reggae scene is expanding and growing at a fast rate. RVK Soundsystem is the first Icelandic sound system, counting 5 DJ’s. They hold reggae nights in Reykjavík every month at clubs Hemmi og Valdi and more recently in Faktorý as the crowd has grown so much.
The first homegrown Polish reggae bands started in the 1980s with groups like Izrael. Singer and songwriter Alexander Barykin was considered as the father of Russian reggae. In Sweden, Uppsala Reggae Festival attracts attendees from across Northern Europe, and features Swedish reggae bands such as Rootvälta and Svenska Akademien as well as many popular Jamaican artists. Summerjam, Europe’s biggest reggae festival, takes place in Cologne, Germany and sees crowds of 25,000 or more. Rototom Sunsplash, a week long festival which used to take place in Osoppo, Italy, until 2009, is now held in Benicassim, Spain and gathers up to 150,000 visitors every year.
Reggae in Africa was much boosted by the visit of Bob Marley to Zimbabwe on Independence Day 18 April 1980. Nigerian reggae had developed in the 1970s with artists such as Majek Fashek proving popular. In South Africa, reggae music has played a unifying role amongst cultural groups in Cape Town. During the years of Apartheid, the music bonded people from all demographic groups. Lucky Dube recorded 25 albums, fusing reggae with Mbaqanga. The Marcus Garvey Rasta camp in Phillipi is regarded by many to be the reggae and Rastafarian center of Cape Town. Reggae bands play regularly at community centres such as the Zolani center in Nyanga.
In Ethiopia, Dub Colossus and Invisible System emerged in 2008 sharing core members, and have received wide acclaim. In Mali, Askia Modibo fuses reggae with Malian music. In Malawi, Black Missionaries produced five albums. In Ivory Coast a country where reggae music is extremely popular, Tiken Jah Fakoly fuses reggae with traditional music. Alpha Blondy from Ivory Coast sings reggae with religious lyrics. In Sudan, beats, drums and bass guitar from reggae music has been adopted into their music as reggae is a very popular among the generations from young to old, some spiritual (religious) groups grow their dreadlocks and have some reggae beats in their chants.
Asia and the Pacific
In the Philippines, several bands and sound systems play reggae and dancehall music. Their music is called Pinoy reggae. Japanese reggae emerged in the early 1980s. Reggae is becoming more prevalent in Thailand as well. Reggae music is quite popular in Sri Lanka. Aside from the reggae music and Rastafarian influences seen ever more on Thailand’s islands and beaches, a true reggae sub-culture is taking root in Thailand’s cities and towns. Many Thai artists, such as Job 2 Do, keep the tradition of reggae music and ideals alive in Thailand. By the end of the 1980s, the local music scene in Hawaii was dominated by Jawaiian music, a local form of reggae. Artists such as JBoog and The Green are hot on the scene. Indonesia also has a thriving reggae scene, with the music brought by tourists to Bali in the 1970s and 1980s. Tony Q, and Steven and TheCoconutTreez are leading the charge for Indonesian reggae.
Australia and New Zealand
Reggae in Australia originated in the 1980s. Desert Reggae is a developing contemporary style possibly originating in Central Australia. Lyrics are often sung in Australian Aboriginal languages. New Zealand reggae was heavily inspired by Bob Marley’s 1979 concert in the country, and early reggae groups such as Herbs. The genre has seen many bands like Fat Freddy’s Drop and Katchafire emerging in more recent times, often involving fusion with electronica.