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Welcome to Jamrock: A brief history of the reggae sound

The sounds of reggae... are the sounds of screeching tyres, bottles breaking, wailing sirens, gunfire, people screaming and shouting, children crying. They are the sounds of the apocalyptic thunder and earthquake; of chaos and curfews. The sounds of reggae are the sounds of a society in the process of transformation, a society undergoing profound political and historical change.

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Reggae is derived from Ska, a mixture of mento, jazz, rhythm and blues, which dominated the music scene in the early 1960s. Ska can be categorized as a product of creolization, adopting heavily from black American music (jazz, gospel and R&B) but also incorporating African elements and Mento sounds. Ska is characterized by the “walking” bass-line, this is achieved by the bassist playing four quarter notes per bar, something borrowed from bass features of jazz and blues records. This genre represented the first form of a popular protest music but very much a soft protest, a passive suffering in comparison to the developed active resistance of reggae.

In the mid-1960s Jamaica’s fragile national unity began to crack with political instability and social disorder. With the deterioration of social conditions protest groups initiated to defy the political leadership, racial pride was beginning to be declared more openly especially by the Rastafarians. Developing from this, a youth Rebellion group was initiated known as the “Rude Boys”. In 1965 a new genre emerged, Rocksteady music more readily expressed this rising active protest in Jamaica, the music immortalized the archetype of the Rude Boy with a heavier emphasis on the bass, a thicker texture as well as through the attitude of music artists and their lyrics. Rocksteady was heavily influenced by soul music, an emotive and romantic black music form imported from United States. Soul music incorporated slower but more insistent rhythms with attention to vocals, rocksteady borrowed soul’s steadier rhythms and singled out vocals to adopt a “ruder” and more political stance. Rocksteady continued the traditional off-beat rhythm and two to three major chords feature in a common chord progression (I, IV, V) appropriated from R&B. Musicians started to integrate a two-guitar attack – traditionally, the second guitar would copy the rhythm of the first guitar, generating a thicker and more wholesome sound. However, in the case of two-guitar attack the second guitar strays from the rhythm of the first, no longer accompanying and instead laying out a single-note, repetitive riff. This two-guitar attack was perfected during the early stages of reggae.

In terms of reggae. a transition was made from the instrumentally focused sound of Ska and Rocksteady to a more vocal-orientated sound to reinforce the protest lyrics outlined in Chapter One, this was emphasized by vocal techniques including call and response, vocal echo and rapping. Reggae protested to the less serious, fun light-hearted tone of Rocksteady and projected a sincere account of the Caribbean experience devoid of whitewashing. With the influence and growth of the Rastafarians as an earnest political movement, reggae was developing as a spiritualist, futurist, utopic, redemptive political project.

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