Sunday, July 12, 2015


Music has played an important role in Jamaican society since the beginning. It was a way to bring the community together not only as entertainment but also to express themselves and their feelings on social issues. There are several genres of music that have gained popularity in Jamaica throughout the decades of the past few centuries. 

Love this lyric from the song "Trenchtown Rock." Always a favorite.
Mento music is a style that is often mistaken for calypso music although they are two separate genres. This style often uses an instrument called a rhumba box (it’s also called a marímbula in other Caribbean countries). It’s basically a large mbira (sometimes called an African thumb piano) placed on the front of a box that you can sit on. The mbira part is in the front of the box between your legs as you’re sitting on the top. The calypso music that mento is often confused with is actually from Trinidad and Tobago. The lyrics often utilize humor, social commentary, and sexual innuendos. Soca music, also stemming from Trinidadian traditions, is also popular in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. 

As jazz was taking off in the early 20th century, it certainly made its way to Jamaica as well. However, there really wasn’t much audience for jazz at that time in Jamaica, and many musicians who wanted to pursue that musical path opted to perform in the UK (and other areas in Europe) and the US. 

Dances in Jamaica include traditions from both Africa and Europe. And in some cases, these traditions have been merged together. Altogether, anthropologists have identified 40 different dances in Jamaica. Jonkonnu dances are not just dances but an entire festival/celebration associated with it as well. These jonkonnu festivals generally incorporate mime-play and theatrical elements into it, coupled with a variety of dances that includes acrobatic moves, moves that mimic animals and other characters, and belly dancing. Pukkumina is another dance that had similarities to some East Indian dances. Dancehall and ska also have their own short-lived dances, usually limited to a popular song at the time. 

Ska, one of my absolute favorite genres, got its start in Jamaica during the 1950s. Ska took elements of mento and calypso and merged it with jazz and R&B. One of the key features of ska bands are its heavy use of the horn line and its emphasis on upbeats. One of the early ska bands was The Skatalites. There were several waves of ska throughout the decades as musicians combined ska with other genres. The most recent wave during the 1990s combined ska with punk rock. Ska gave way to rocksteady and reggae. Rocksteady, made popular by musicians such as Desmond Dekker, put an emphasis on the baseline. 

Reggae is fairly well known across the world and is especially popular throughout the Caribbean and Africa. Bob Marley was probably one of the biggest names in reggae and helped spread its popularity worldwide along with musicians like Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. It was so popular that many musicians borrowed elements of reggae in their music or worked with reggae musicians on certain songs. During the 1980s a style known as dancehall also came on the scene. To me dancehall and another style called ragga are extensions of reggae. They tend to be more upbeat tempo-wise, and their lyrics are less social/political (although there are a few songs out there that are) and focus more on everyday life and love. Staring in the late 1980s and 1990s, reggae and dancehall crossovers have been fairly popular across the US, UK, and Caribbean markets. Musicians such as Buju Banton, Capleton, Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks, Bounty Killer, Sean Paul, Shaggy, and Sean Kingston have enjoyed much success in this category. 

Now, I’ve listened to reggae, ragga, and dancehall for many years, thanks to my husband and his son who introduced me to these genres. And I added a lot of these artists to my playlist. So, let’s go through some of my favorites. I mentioned Desmond Dekker earlier as an example of early rocksteady. To me, his music has a lot of elements of reggae and 1950s rock. Sometimes rocksteady and early ska (like The Skatalites) share many similarities in style. 

Of course, Bob Marley is a staple. Most people know at least a few of his songs, which have been used as anthems for promoting peace and Rastafarianism. I think even the Jamaican Tourism Board used his music in promoting the island. Peter Tosh is in the same genre as Bob Marley. It’s amazing how the song “Legalize It” is still relevant today, even though that song was released in 1975. 

Shabba Ranks is one musician who I have never really listened to by himself. Everything I have heard has always been part of a mix. It seems like he often has a lot of other singers featured on his tracks and some of his mixes also features the iconic orchestra hits and electric piano that were popular in the 1980s.

Beres Hammond’s style has more of a softer, slower side of reggae. He’s another one who I have mostly heard in reggae mixes. 

Although definitely having their own distinctive styles, I often place Beenie Man, Capleton, Buju Banton, and Bounty Killer in the same category. In fact I have made mix CDs with all of their music on it. I used Capleton’s “Jah Jah City” as a ringtone for several years. To this day when I play that song, I start looking for my phone. 

And then there’s the newer dancehall/reggae crossover artists who cater to the US/North American crowd. Artists such as Shaggy, Sean Paul, Sean Kingston, and others have collaborated with hip-hop, reggaeton, R&B, and pop artists.

Up next: the food

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