music is math…

Window on the world: Jamaica

Part I: From Roots to Reggae

In the summer of 1962 Jamaica achieved its independence from Britain and the new nation celebrated in typical fashion. Soundsystems on the streets of Kingston blasted out the latest local musical phenomenon, ska music, as Jamaicans partied through the night.

Ska was a mix of the popular American R&B songs and more traditional Caribbean sounds such as mento and calypso, resulting in an energetic style of music perfect for the dancehalls of Jamaica. American music was everywhere in Jamaica in the 1950s with a demand for live bands in the tourist clubs and the US Navy making frequent stops on the island.

However, as more studios opened and producers began making records using local talent, this tiny Caribbean island was in the process of creating one of the most powerful musical cultures of the 20th century.

Producers like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster were instrumental in creating the careers these early stars. Dodd’s Studio One label was home to The Skatalites, Delroy Wilson, The Wailers, Toots & The Maytals and many more, earning it the nickname “the Motown of Jamaica”. One of the best pieces of early ska to come out of the studio was the 1963 number one hit ‘Simmer Down’ performed by The Wailers and The Skatalites.

The Skatalites went on to define the sound of ska and continue to tour the world to this day (albeit with a very different lineup). This Studio One cut is by the band’s trombonist Don Drummond who, like many other ska musicians, learnt to play music at the Alpha Boys School in Kingston. ‘Man in the Street’  carries all the recognisable traits of the ska sound, particularly the horns blasting a catchy hook over an offbeat rhythm.

The celebratory mood of post-independece Jamaica did not last long and by the mid 1960s, unemployment and street crime in Kingston had given rise to the culture of the “rudeboys”. Derrick Morgan’s ‘Tougher Than Tough’, a song he was apparently threatened into writing for a notorious rudeboy, sums up the situation on the streets and the authorities’ hopeless efforts to bring them to justice.

As society changed, so did the music, and the slower, more mellow sounds of rocksteady began to overtake the popularity of ska. Groups such as The Maytals, The Melodians and The Paragons became popular for their use vocal harmonies, shuffling basslines and unusual chord sequences. The Federals’ ‘Shocking Love’ is a beautifully romantic example of the new sound that swept Jamaica in the late 60s.

The influence of the Rastafari community also grew during this period, and out of rocksteady came the style known as reggae. Rocksteady’s more thoughtful sound was a perfect base for the meditative Rasta lyrics, as demonstrated by The Heptones’ ‘Cool Rasta’.

The transition away from rocksteady was helped by the addition of new instruments, notably the recognisable organ shuffle now synonymous with reggae and African percussion. With the sound developing, all reggae needed was an icon…

Spotify playlist available to download here featuring 31 tracks from the origins of ska, through to rocksteady and early reggae.


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