All About Jamaican Music

From Mento to Ska, Rocksteady to Reggae, and Beyond!

Bob Marley
Monosnaps/Flikr/CC BY 2.0

History of Jamaican Music

The history of Jamaican music is inextricably intertwined with the history of the Jamaican people. Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean, and was initially populated by the Arawak people. Christopher Columbus "discovered" the island on his second voyage to the Americas, and it was settled first by Spanish colonists, and later by English colonists. It became a major hub for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and sugarcane production, and because of the high population of Africans and people of African descent on the island of Jamaica, it was the site of multiple slave uprisings, many of which were successful, resulting in the establishment of long-term Maroon (escaped slave) colonies, some of which lasted until the British Empire's abolition of slavery in 1832.
The large numbers of Africans also helped to keep a high level of African cultural elements, including musical styles, alive in Jamaica throughout the colonial era.

Read More: Best Books About Jamaican Music

African Elements in Jamaican Music

These African musical elements formed the basis of Jamaican music as we know it. The one-drop rhythm, which is the defining rhythmic element of reggae music, is distinctly African. The call-and-response style of singing which is so common in West African music is reflected in many genres of Jamaican music, and even forms the basis for toasting which, in turn, forms the basis for rap music. Even the language of African-descended Jamaicans is reflected in Jamaican music, much of which is sung in patois, a Creole language with both African and English linguistic elements.

European Elements in Jamaican Music

English and other European influences are also apparent in Jamaican music.
During the colonial era, black slave musicians were expected to play the popular music of Europe for their European masters. Thus, slave bands would perform waltzes, quadrilles and other figure dances, reels, and many other dances and song styles. These song styles remained present and intact in black Jamaican folk music right up until the middle of the 20th century.

Early Jamaican Folk Music

The first folklorist to collect and categorize Jamaican folk songs was a man named Walter Jekyll, whose 1904 book Jamaican Song and Story is in the public domain and available to read for free or download as a PDF from Google Books.
Though the book is a bit dated, it's a wealth of information, and the earliest scientifically-collected grouping of Jamaican songs and stories, as well as the elements that made up Jamaican music at that time.

Mento Music

By the late 1940s, mento music arose as a unique style of Jamaican music. Mento is similar to Trinidadian calypso and, indeed, is sometimes referred to as Jamaican calypso, but it is indeed a genre unto itelf. It features a fair balance of African and European elements, and is played with acoustic instruments, including banjo, guitar, and the rumba box, which a large-scale bass lamellophone (kind of like a giant mbira which the player sits upon while playing). One of the most fun aspects of mento music is the lyrical content, which frequently features extended bawdy double entendres and political innuendo.

Ska Music

In the early 1960s, ska music took shape. Combining traditional mento with elements of American R&B and boogie-woogie, which was immensely popular in Jamaica at the time, ska was a soulful genre which featured harmony singing, upbeat and danceable rhythms, a horn section, and songs that are frequently about love. The emergence of ska occurred at the same time as the emergence of rude boy culture, wherein impoverished Jamaican youths emulated an old-school American-style gangster aesthetic. Competing gangs of rude boys were hired by sound system operators like Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Lesley Kong to start fights at the street dances of competing sound system operators.

Listen: Essential Traditional Ska Starter CDs

Rocksteady Music

Rocksteady was a short-lived but influential genre of Jamaican music that came about in the middle to late 1960s, which differed from ska with a slowed-down beat and, often, a lack of a horn section. Rocksteady quickly evolved into reggae music.

Reggae Music

Reggae music emerged in the late 1960s, and went on to become the genre of music that most people identify with the music of Jamaica. Reggae, particularly roots reggae, was heavily influenced by Rastafarianism, both lyrically and musically, with nyabinghi drumming and socially conscious (and often Pan-African) lyrics re-injecting the music with the distinct sounds of Africa. Dub music is an offshoot of reggae, which features producers remixing reggae songs, usually adding heavy bass lines and re-processed instrumental and vocal tracks. Important figures in reggae music include Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Listen: Essential Bob Marley CDs
Listen: Beyond Bob Marley: More Great Early Reggae Artists

Dancehall Music

Dancehall music emerged in the late 1970s as a modernized form of reggae music, which reflected increasingly violent and impoverished conditions in Jamaica. Dancehall, also known as bashment, continues to exist as a modern genre, and usually features a deejay toasting over a riddim, and has been under fire for years, as slack lyrics (lyrics featuring violence and blatant x-rated content) have gone so far as to advocate the killing of homosexuals.

Jamaican Music's Influence on the World

Jamaican music's popularity has spread throughout the world, and manifested in many different ways. It is omnipresent in various ways on pop music charts from around the world. For example, reggae is hugely popular in Africa, where artists like Lucky Dube created their own brand of reggae. Artists such as Matisyahu have created a sub-genre of Jewish reggae that continues to gain popularity. In the mid-1990s, bands like No Doubt and Reel Big Fish revived ska music by combining it with punk rock, making it wildly popular among young people in the U.K. and the U.S. And indeed, every once in awhile, a reggae song becomes a pop hit. Jamaican music is deeply entrenched in the musical culture of the world, and will likely continue to be that way for a long, long time.