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Reggae, once a specific style of music, is now the one word used to encompass all of the many styles and periods of the music of the Jamaican diaspora. Reggae originally started very primitively and locally, the earliest roots being identifiable as early as the 1950s, but it has grown hugely in popularity and diversity over the years and now influences so many genres of music throughout the world.
Reggae music has evolved considerably over the decades since its early roots over half a century ago. The evolution of what is now called reggae has in fact passed through several stages over the years. The following styles and genres were and are quite distinctive in their own right, and yet as each style became popular it has gradually blended and evolved into the next style as the fascinating development of reggae music continues. Many devoted followers of Jamaican music have stayed faithful to their own particular period or style, complaining that the later faces of Jamaican music have strayed too far in pusuit of commercial popularity. Many however welcome this ever-evolving living, vibrant music that through constant metamorphosis continues to be relevant to each new generation. How many musical styles can claim likewise?
Mento was the tradtional country music of Jamaica back in the 1950's. Using very primitive instrumentation, with the banjo often predominant, and with a similar beat and rhythm to the better-known calypso music from Trinidad, Mento was Jamaican "folk" music that had little commercial exposure and is nowadays often wrongly confused with its more developed Trinidadian cousin. Gradually, as new recording techniques and radio broadcasts from America brought "popular" music to the world young Jamaican musicians became influenced by early doo-wop, skiffle, and popular American dance music. This was given a distinctive caribbean twist and and often blended with traditional mento rhythms by Jamaican musicians using more primitive instruments and rudimentary recording techniques.
As this music took on a definite style and sound of its own, the rhythms became more staccato and up-beat. Big band sounds, again popular in the USA, were now being recorded in Jamaica using this fast-pased dance beat. The emphasis was now very definitely on the third beat with kick drum and rim-shot, missing the first beat and with the up stroke on the second and fourth and with metalic rim-shot drum breaks. This is the one thread that has continued to run through almost all the otherwise vastly changing styles of Jamaican music over the next 20 years. Ska remained the sound of Jamaican music throughout the early to mid '60s although it remained relatively niche and at that time never really found much exposure overseas.
In the mid '60s experimentation with these sounds and rhythms resulted in the very fast, percussive, energetic beat of Ska being slowed down dramatically to produce a more mellow, smooth and relaxing music. The "big band" sound of horns and saxophone had gone, but Rock steady still used the emphatic third beat and upstroke second and fourth however at a much slower pace, with more emphasis on harmony, and still almost universally employing high metalic rim-shots for the introductory and intermediary drum breaks. Mellow, tuneful, melodic and with an infectious almost hypnotic rhythm, rock steady is, for many, where Jamaican music reached its most beautiful and unspoiled heights, and by 1970 it had pretty much disappeared. From this point onwards commercial interests and more sophisticated recording techniques started to have their influence.
There are various theories and claims for the origins of the name "reggae", but pretty universally it is accepted that Toots Hibbert and the Maytals were the first to use it in recorded form. Reggae music developed rapidly out of rock steady, by speeding up the beat again, although not as fast as Ska, and putting more emphasis on the rhythm guittar on beats 2 and 4. Here the distinctive styles of previous genres become much more blurred as numerous types of sound and instrumentations created some quite diverse music. Throughout the '60s many Jamaican families had emigrated to the UK, the USA, Canada, Germany etc taking with them their tastes in music.
Chris Blackwell has been universally credited (or cursed by some) for pumping big money into reggae music and changing it for ever with his sponsorship of many Jamaican ex-pat musicians. There are far too many to mention here, but most notable amongst these was Jimmy Cliff who was to star in the first "reggae" film, The Harder They Come. The world-acknowledged ambasador of reggae music, Bob Marley, would almost certainly have never been heard of internationally had it not been for Chris Blackwell. Without question Blackwell is single-handedly responsible for bringing reggae music outof the ghettoand into the mainstream worl of popular music. However many are highly critical of the commercialisation and sanitisation that Blackwell brought to bear upon his artists (including Marley, as can be seen in comparison with his early ska and rock steady recordings). This influence spread to the many other record labels and artists that were springing up to take advantage of the new found popularity of reggae music. The introduction of full orchestral backing, violins, multi-track and multi-take recordings, and a determined targeting of the mainstream hit-parades was the moment that many purist enthusiasts feel that reggae was ruined for ever. However reggae music went from strength to strength and in its many forms flourished amazingly throughout the 1970s and '80s, with a few distinctive sub-genres being identifiable, sometimes blending with the main stream of popular reggae and sometimesbranching off and retaining their own particular following:
"Version" recordings were prevalent in late rock steady and early reggae music. These were the instrumental versions of singles with the vocal tracks removed, and often released as the "B" side. While this may have been a cynical cheapskate policy by producers, these instrumental versions often proved hugely popular.
Version cuts were frequently used by sound system deejays in Jamaica, who would then shout/sing ad-lib vocal lines over the top. Often deejays would compete with one another in sometimes bitter rivalry. This became known as "toasting" and it is now accepted that these early talk-over artists were the original inspiration for the much later American "rap" music of the 1990s. Just one of the demonstrable ways in which reggae music can be seen to have had major impact on musical genres very far removed.
The sound systems became immensely popular from Jamaican street corners to dance halls in London and New York. The deejays would spin and mix the discs, sometimes toasting, sometimes just playing with the different tracks on the recording to cut from instrument to instrument, percussion to vocals to create their own unique "riddim" or "cut". These techniques progressed from the dance floor tothe recording studio and dub music became a highly popular genre in its own right. 1990s American drum 'n' bass music was without question inspired directly from dub riddims.
Rastafarianism became much more widespread and popular in Jamaica and among the diaspora from the mid 1970s. Following the success and exposure of the American Black Power movement and the growing confidence of the young second generation of black "imigrant" communities in the USA, UK, Canada and Germany, these young peole started to take a very strong interest in their cultural roots, slavery, and black history. These political and emotive themes inevitably came to strongly influence reggae music, with vast numbers of artists and songs using "conscious" lyrics, and often using a minor rather than major key, giving a more melancholy ambience. The general tempo tends to be slower, often the use of African style drum rhythms predominates, and the metalic percussion sounds of earlier genres are not normally used.
The 1980s brought a desire again for a much more commercial sound, sweeter, melodic, smoother, tuneful and gentle in both sound and lyrics. Even now, decades later lovers' rock continues to this day to have a very strong following as its easy-listening and addictive vibes cool and soothe in comparison to....
Directly developing from the toasters of the 1970s but with a very different sound, at the time of writing (2015) dancehall has, with little variation in principle, remained the most universally popular and long-lived of all the genres of reggae music. No longer using the upstoke on beats 2 and 4, nor the "one drop" emphasis on beat 3, dancehall is typified by a more raucous, loud and aggressive vocal intonation, often (but not always) using violent lyrical themes, fast-paced and up-tempo, insistent, driving and some might say monotonous. Dancehall music is exactly that - aimed at the young and energetic, and designed to be played at full volume. Unlikely ever to appeal to purists or those old enough to remember those early, some might say unspoiled, years of Jamaican music, dancehall shows no sign of losing its popularity as each new generation comes to discover it.
THE FUTURE OF REGGAE?
Reggae Music now has artists from all over the world, with many "One Love" concerts and festivals. Those visiting Jamaica can seek out and enjoy "Sumfest" in Montego Bay and "Rebel Salute" in January on the south coast in the port kaiser area. How many musical genres can claim half a century of popularity? From Commercial to conscious, from rasta to roots, dub to dancehall, from ska to lovers' rock, still reggae music endures in its many diverse forms. Ska has now had two revivals and there are sure to be more to come, dancehall goes from strength to strength with no sign of an end, lovers rock is ever-popular, and commercial reggae just keeps on going. For those more interested in the past than the present and future, with digital re-mastering of even extremely rare tracks, the early music of Jamaica - the real "roots" of reggae music, is easily available to all who wish to explore this fascinating and emotionally stimulating music.
Anyone with words of wisdom to share please do add to this, and spread the word.....