BBC - The Story of Reggae - Intro

  • Without reggae culture, there’d be no Ms Dynamite, Roni Size, So Solid, no Massive Attack, Madness and The Clash wouldn’t have packed the same bassline punch.
  • Jamaica’s slave population were the most rebellious, and plantation owners hated to have to stay on the island as they perpetually feared for their lives.
  • Modern Jamaican music – from ska onwards – owes almost as much to ancient African traditions as it does to R&B and jazz.
  • The majority of the first generation of world famous Jamaican musicians were classically and formally trained eg Don Drummond.
A reggae record shop in Jamaica
Reggae sunsplash

A reggae record shop in Jamaica

Imagine Jamaica at the end of the 1950s, already gripped by Independence fever as the new nation prepares for the lowering of the flag in 1962. In downtown Kingston the sound systems are booming and competition for the freshest tunes is ferocious. Of course the imported sounds of American rhythm & blues won’t satisfy these souls, so, at about that time, the coming of an indigenous Jamaican music for the masses was inevitable.

But this celebratory combination of nationalism and commercialism had another powerful element – Africa. Religion, in the form of Pocomania, and the drum music traditions of Burru and Kumina survived transportation to be embraced in Jamaica where Africanism was clung to fiercely and slave revolts were far more commonplace than on any other Caribbean island. Much later, Rastafari’s sophisticated drum ensembles would provide a living example of these ancient traditions, while the burgeoning music industry was never slow to absorb those influences.

Add to this a generation of classically-trained musicians, who had embraced bebop jazz’s sense of adventures, and crowds who just want to dance and it’s little wonder that this tiny island – a population half the size of London’s – has become such a force in global music.

Music is not Jamaica’s only gift to the world, but it is how so many Jamaicans chose to define themselves. People will talk about how music and singing lifted the spirits through slavery and colonialism as well as being a weapon against political corruption and civil disorder. It gave the poor people a voice and something to call their own, celebrated the joys of life on the tropical island and spread One Love throughout the world.

For fifty years, the natural medium for this music has been the sound system dances, with, traditionally, commercial recordings and release schedules playing second fiddles to these awesome ghetto-centric situations. Thus, for as long as there’s been Jamaican music it’s remained inseparable to the people and the environment responsible for it. Reggae remains one of the world’s last genuine folk musics.

Next chapter: Ska