When someone mentions reggae music, Bob Marley and The Wailers immediately spring to mind. While Bob Marley had a huge impact on the musical world in a then unfamiliar style, the story of Reggae music is a little more detailed and involved many twists and turns before it emerged as an independent style in its own right.
Characteristics of Reggae Music
Reggae music is very different from other musical styles in that the emphasis is placed on the off-beat, usually by a rhythm guitar, piano or synthesizer. When people dance to disco or pop music, they move in time with the bass or bass drum beat, but dancing to reggae music involves moving in time with the off-beat. Other instruments commonly used are horns and bongos. The tempo is usually quite slow and relaxed. The lyrics of reggae songs are usually influenced by politics, social situations and the Rastafarian way of life.
Before radios became affordable to the Jamaican locals, music was publicly broadcasted in open areas on a setup known as a 'sound system'. The music played at that time (50s) generally came from the US or the UK and consisted mainly of rhythm and blues. But with the emergence of Jamaica as an independent nation in 1962, nationalism gripped the locals, who wanted to celebrate their freedom with a new music style.
The 'war' began. Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd and Duke 'Trojan' Reid were in fierce competition with each other as 'toasters' of their sound systems. 'Toasters' would commentate to the music they were playing, with harmonic vocalisation or chatting. This became the real entertainment value of the sound systems. Toasting sessions began to draw large crowds of people, sparking discussion over who was the best. The creation of Jamaica's first record label, 'Federal Records', ignited a recording frenzy by local bands that were supported by Dodd and Reid.
The local 'mento' music (influenced by European and African folk music) of the early 50s had now progressed to 'bluebeat', a Jamaican version of rhythm and blues, and everyone wanted a piece of the musical pie. Toasting sessions were replaced by 'band plugging'. The brass instruments, piano and drums that were characteristic of the 'bluebeat' style took a back seat and the bass became the focal point, creating a new style called Ska. Records of this new style were being cut and played constantly in an effort to find the 'Jamaican' sound, led by the Skatalites (mid 60s) and Desmond 'Dekker' Dacres (late 60s).
The degradation of social conditions in Jamaica led to a new twist on the ska style, which resulted in 'rock steady'. Rock steady focused more on vocal talent and song lyrics consisted of political outcries. Reggae was soon to follow as the social conditions worsened and resulted in violence. Messages of 'peace and love' in the local music began to emerge, with an altogether different beat. The style was relaxed and the 'off-beat' rhythm familiar today was adopted from an African style of drumming, known as 'Nyahbinghi'. In addition to the rhythm and blues influence, reggae (popularly used to describe a 'ragged' style of music) music addressed the philosophies of Rastafarianism, a set of beliefs originating from Africa. Toots and the Maytals immortalised the name of the new Jamaican music style with their song 'Do The Reggay' in 1968.
Bob Marley and The Wailers showed the new Jamaican style to the world, which subsequently spread like wildfire, with the first recorded Reggae album entitled 'The Best of The Wailers' in 1970. Bob Marley and his band continued to be a success when they gave their reggae a new pop slant with songs such as 'No Woman, No Cry' and 'Stir It Up'. This started the formation of new reggae bands, such as UB40, Pato Banton and Aswad.
The lyrics of typical 'roots' reggae songs involve much reference to the Rastafarian religion. For example, 'Jah' (God) refers to the embodiment of the faith, the emperor of Ethiopia at the time the religion was founded (1930), Haile Selassie. Rastafarianism is based on parts of the Bible, but more so on what is called the 'Holy Piby' or 'black man's bible', as well as the Kebra Negast of Ethiopia.
Mentions of 'Babylon' (Rastafarian holy place), 'Jah', freedom, peace and justice are common, in addition to a general theme of blacks returning to their 'mother land' of Africa. It is believed in the religion that Europeans were responsible for the fragmenting of black people around the globe, resulting in a supposed inadequacy regarding social and political issues. Therefore, many songs address this belief in their lyrics.
Reggae Music and Marijuana
Controversy surrounds reggae music because of its Rastafarian influence, namely the use of Marijuana by its followers. Although 'ganja' (as it is known in Jamaica) is smoked by some Rastas and believed to give clarity and deeper understanding of the religious beliefs, it is not an inherent characteristic of Rastafarianism or Reggae.