Music Genres

History of Reggae Music

History of Reggae Music        

Reggae music rose into fame in Kingston, Jamaica in the early 1960s. However, reggae music also gained popularity in the United States almost as great as it is in its country of origin. Reggae is sort of a melting pot because it has a number of influences such as contemporary and traditional Jamaican music, American R&B, mento, and ska. Reggae comes from the word “rege-rege” which is a slang word for tattered clothing or rags.

History of Reggae

As we mentioned earlier, this popular music genre originated in Jamaica in the 1960s where it quickly became the country’s dominant music. When 1970 came, reggae had become an international style that became popular in the United States, Africa, and Britain where it was widely perceived as the voice of the oppressed.

turntable playing reggae vinyl record
turntable playing reggae vinyl record

Reggae music is based on Ska, an earlier form of Jamaican music which uses a heavy four-beat rhythm that is driven by drums, electric guitar, bass guitar, and the musical instrument called the “Scraper” which is a corrugated stick that is rubbed by a plain stick. The chunking sounds of the rhythm guitar that you hear at the end of the measures in the music are called “skengay”. And in 1962, when Jamaica gained its independence, ska became popular music for Jamaican youths who called the genre as their own.

During the mid-1960s, another root of reggae music called rock steady was formed by Jamaican musicians under the direction of producers Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, slowed the tempo of ska music. This style was short-lived but it made performers Alton Ellis and the Heptones famous. From there, reggae music started to evolve but it still bore the weight of politicized lyrics which mostly addressed economic and social injustice.

Among the artists who rose to fame in the reggae scene were Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers, and of course, reggae’s most popular artist, Bob Marley. In 1972, a man named Jimmy Cliff became another reggae superstar when he gained international fame by starring in a movie entitled “The Harder They Come.” The said movie was a Jamaican-made film that documented how reggae became the voice of the oppressed, poor, and dispossessed. The soundtrack of “The Harder They Come” became a celebration of the defiant human spirit that cannot be suppressed.

The Reggae’s Rhythm

This genre is categorized by a heavy backbeat rhythm which means the that if the emphasis of the beat is on beats 2 and 4 when the song is in 4/4 time. This backbeat is distinctive in all off African-based music styles and it is not found in any traditional European or Asian music.

Reggae and Rastafarianism

Rastafarianism is a social movement and religion that was recognized in Jamaica during the 1930s. This religion is considered as an Abrahamic system of belief which means that the faith of the followers of Rastafarianism originated in the practices of ancient Israelites that worshipped the “God of Abraham.” Reggae music is often connected with Rastafarianism because most of the reggae artists practiced this religion and that explains why most reggae lyrics reflectthe traditions and beliefs of Rastafarianism.

Reggae’s Popularity in the United States

Bob Marley is probably reggae’s most popular artist and ambassador. In fact, when most people hear the word reggae, the next word they think about is Bob Marley’s name. From Marley’s early days in a rocksteady band to the later years when he became a political activist and a Rastafari convert, Bob Marley has made his way deep into the hearts of reggae fans all around the globe. Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff among other reggae artists also had their fair share of help to the spread of this genre.

As a result, hundreds of U.S-based reggae bands had risen into fame over the decades. In fact, even Rastafarianism became popular as the genre to the point where you can find Rastafarian communities in almost every large American city.

Reggae’s lyrics are sometimes incomprehensible to Americans because they are usually sung in an English-based but noticeably Jamaican dialect. Artists also like to use exclusively Jamaican slang terms and reference Rastafarian terms such as “Jah” which means God.

Reggae was not only a precursor to Jamaican style of Dub but also to American ska, just think of the artists such as Reel Big Fish, Sublime and No Doubt which all had the pop, rock, and most of all reggae vibe into their music.

Cannabis and Reggae

Cannabis is used as a sacrament in Rastafarian practices. This is because they believe that it brings a person closer to God and it helps them open their mind when they receive His testimony. That’s why cannabis, or ganja in Jamaican slang, is often heard in reggae lyrics. Unfortunately, this part and its purpose have been misinterpreted by other people who used this sacred ritual as an excuse to indulge in the effect of cannabis. But take note that not all reggae songs contain references to ganja or cannabis, just the same as not all reggae artists are Rastafarians.

Iconic Reggae Artists

As reggae became popular, many great artists also emerged and most of them used the music and platform to speak of social injustice and praise God. And here are the most iconic reggae artists and performers of all time.

  • Bob Marley and The Wailers

They are probably the most iconic reggae artist ever. Ever since the band formed in 1963 as a ska group with Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley, they slowly and surely introduced reggae music into the international music scene. And even if Peter Tosh and Bob Marley passed away many years ago, the band still continues to tour with different members. Their song was always very political and they talk of injustices not only in Jamaica but all around the world. Bob Marley and The Wailers are so popular that their influence can even be heard in other genres of music. Their children and other family members carried on the reggae torch they also performing internationally until today.

  • Jimmy Cliff

Cliff has been performing as a reggae artist for more than 50 years and he is still going strong. He is popular for his 1972 movie and its soundtrack entitled “The Harder They Come”. Since then, Jimmy Cliff has continued to make music and spread the message of love and peace but he doesn’t hold back when he speak out politically as well.

  • Burning Spear

After Burning Spear or also known as Winston Rodney passed by Bob Marley while walking up the hills of St. Ann’s in Jamaica, he went straight to Studio One and followed Marley’s advice to start recording reggae music. Since then, Burning Spear has been performing for more than 40 years while he spreads the message of love and peace to his fans. Burning Spear’s music, as well as his performances are spiritually uplifting and he still performs until today. That’s why if you ever get the chance to witness him live, take it because it will be an experience of a lifetime.

  • Toots and The Maytals

Toots and The Maytals were formed in 1962 and they immediately began recording at Studio One. One of the things we like about Toots and The Maytals is that they keep their songs on a happy and positive note that matches Toot’s sweet and soulful voice. The band recorded and toured endlessly ever since they were formed and all of their hardwork paid off when they were able to infiltrate the international music scene and received several Grammy nominations. Their songs have influenced younger artists in different genres. Their song “Do the reggay” that was released in 1968 is considered the first time the term reggae was used.

  • Israel Vibration

Israel Vibration is a reggae group that is composed of Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin, Craig and Cecil “Skelly” Spence, and Albert “Apple Gabriel”. The group first met each other as children in a rehabilitation center for polio which they all overcame. But Israel Vibration did not form until 1970 where they started as an opening act for artists such as Bob Marley and Dennis Brown. Israel Vibration is still active in the reggae music scene even without Craig.

  • Culture

Culture was formed in the 1970 and their sound was hard driving roots reggae which became popular in Jamaica and surprisingly in the UK with punk rock fans. Since then Culture made several records and they still continue to tour up to this day.

  • Desmond Dekker

Although Desmond Dekker’s music was not as militant or violent as some of the other reggae artists during 1960s, he helped introducesome of the social injustice that was happening in Jamaica through the rude boy culture in the 1960s and 1970s. He had several hits during the ‘70s and he passed away in 2006.

  • Sly and Robbie

Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar are two of the most popular reggae artists and music producers in Jamaica. Reports say that the two have played and produced over 200,000 recordings. After producing several artists, Sly and Robbie decided that they should form their own group during the mid-1970s. Aside from producing several artists and for their rhythm-centric music, the duo is also known for starting up the “Rub A Dub” sound in the 1980s. They continue on producing music with some of the biggest music artists in recent years such as No Doubt and Khalifa.

  • Steel Pulse

This band was formed in 1975 in Birmingham, England. They are a roots reggae band who always sings about social injustice and racism. In fact, Steel Pulse was even banned from playing at certain clubs in Britain because they are very outspoken when it comes to Rastafarian beliefs. However, they still slowly climbed up the popularity ladder as they began opening for artists such as Burning Spear. Steel Pulse played their first concert in the United States on the night of Bob Marley’s funeral. They were also the first reggae band to ever perform at The Tonight Show. Steel Pulse is still making music and performing live all over the world until today.

Interesting Facts About Reggae

  • February is Reggae Month in Jamaica.
  • The first reggae month was celebrated in 2007 on the grounds of Edna Manley College of Visual Arts.
  • Events during reggae month is not just a reggae music festival it also features different events such as book launches, lectures, award shows, and poetry readings.
  • There are over 200 reggae festivals held every year.
  • The best selling reggae album was Bob Marley’s “Legend.”
  • Reggae has produced over 15 different musical forms.
  • Reggae is Jamaica’s biggest cultural export that contributes significantly to the country’s economy.
  • Over 2 million tourists visit Jamaica every year and most of them visit during February, Jamaica’s national Reggae Month.
  • Despite being the icon for reggae music, Bob Marley never won a Grammy award. The “Best Reggae Recording” category was added three years after his death.
  • Black Uhuru was the first reggae artists that won a Grammy and it is for their album entitled “Anthem.”
  • Ziggy Marley, Bob Marley’s son, has won the most Grammy awards for reggae music.

Inspirational Reggae Quotes

As we mentioned in this article, reggae is not just about politics and oppression. It is also about spreading happiness, love, and peace. That’s why we gathered the most inspirational reggae quotes that might change your perspective in life.

  • “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” – Bob Marley
  • “I don’t know where life will lead me, but I know where I’ve been. I can’t say what life will show me, but I know what I’ve seen. Tried my hand at love and friendship, but all that is passed and gone. This little boy is moving on.” – Jimmy Cliff
  • “Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” – Bob Marley
  • “I’ve abused myself a lot over the years. But my voice is still intact – really, it’s better.” – Jimmy Cliff
  • “Better to die fighting for freedom than be a prisoner all the days of your life.” – Bob Marley
  • “Reggae must be lived, not played. It is a lifebeat everytime.” – Peter Tosh

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