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Off the Beaten Track: A brief history of reggae

Reggae sounds so befitting of Jamaica that it seems if you were to hold the island to your ear like a conch then ‘Three Little Birds’ would be the natural sound it resonates. Thus, like the hush of the wind through the leaves of the tree that sounds closer to silence than sound, reggae is something so natural-seeming the question about how it came to be is rarely asked. In this edition of Off the Beaten Track, we’re taking a trip to the sun-kissed beaches of Bob Marley country, to scuba through the history of the eponymous beach sound. 

Jamaica entered the 1970s with a population of only 1.8million, so the fact that reggae swept through all corners of the world like a comb through Rapunzel’s locks represents the biggest bout of punching above your weight in cultural history. Keith Richards was in the country at the time when the benevolent boon first went boom, and he recalled: “I remember being in Jamaica [In ‘73]. There was this feeling in the air, actually, that Jamaica was starting to make a mark on the map. It was a great feeling.” But just how did it sound the way it did in the first place?

As with so many delves into cultural history, the art comes as a response to adversity. Jamaica was colonised by Spain in the 1500s and once again by Britain in 1655. When the British taste for sugar roared as a result, slaves from Africa were shipped over to the island to help harvest the canes. With them came sounds and ideas that bled into Jamaican culture. 

The resultant sound was dubbed ‘Mento’. The primitive genre fused percussive elements of African music through rumba boxes, bongos and the incantation-like chants of slave songs, with European guitar and banjo sounds and thrown into the mix was the wry everyday lyricism of subversive Jamaican verse. All of this was then blended in the inherent sepia-toned beauty of the island. 

This traditionalist sound was set in place for centuries on an island where nothing moves all that quickly. However, as independence loomed for Jamaica in the early sixties and the influence of American pop culture began to wash up on their shores, the old ways seemed to be ending. 

On the 6th of August 1962, independence was declared, and an R&B craze soon followed. The soundtrack to the celebrations was by and large local musicians trying their hands at covering the rhythm and blues of America. Parties had always been a big part of the convergent social civility in Jamaica, but now they were an essential socio-economic factor.

Communities came together selling food, drink and the free advice of opinions, particularly on music which was now a national obsession. However, when it comes to covers, it’s hard to stand out from the pack. With every guitarist in the village hurriedly learning the chords to the latest American record to hit the shores, necessity became the mother of invention. 

It is worth noting that at this stage, in the mid-sixties, reggae as we know it was not even a thing. And yet, by 1973 Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Catch a Fire was weaving its way into the sonic tapestry of history and changing the face of global music. 

The island was abuzz with the live-giving hum of music. And as is always the case with any movement, there is always a focal epicentre. In Jamaica that was the nun-run Alpha Boys School. The Sisters who worked there recognised the potential of music to bring people together and provide exultation from hardship, thus they encouraged that all the boys in attendance regaled in the craze. Among those boys were three of the island’s Promethean reggae forces, Yellowman, Dizzy Reece and Edward Thornton. 

When the call came for music to become autonomous on the island the eager youngsters entered the studio but having not conquered the ways of R&B just yet, they reverted back to the old tricks of Mento, building American sounds around the tried and tested structure of 4/4 timing, upstrokes and African voodoo inspired percussion. Once more, the musical craze was so widespread that even a fly in the studio would fart out a contribution along with a slew of brass players, bongo players and about 18 backing singers. With this, the repetitive refrain of dancehall ska was born and Jamaica had its own national identity, but reggae still waiting further down the line. 

The big party of independence and ska would soon be curtailed by the hangover of reality. Crime grew, hardship festered and the search for cultural identity became more multifaceted than an entire island dancing in the streets. And when this hangover descended in the spiritual Sunday for the island, Lionel Richie’s testimony that you want something a little easier rang true once more. 

The ska slowed to rocksteady, the rhythms got less frantic and studios were sparser. Then in 1966 Emperor Haile Selassie made the journey from Ethiopia and seized the searching zeitgeist of Jamaica like the Frank Lampard of prophets and arrived in the box at just the right time. Rastafarianism hit the back of the net in Jamaica, and it would remain a vital sail in the tempestuous bay that the country was docked in towards the end of the sixties. 

Rocksteady gathered undertones of protest music, but unlike the incendiary ways of anarchy and nihilism in the western equivalent, the protest music of Jamaica was underscored by spiritualism. Drums certainly entered the rhythm, with unrest on the street it was impossible to keep them sequestered, but they were tempered by pacifist introspection and whisked up in a smoke-filled studio. With the new reggae sound Bob Marley and his cohort sort cognizance of the oppressed African’s condition in Jamaica and offered joyous exultation from it in the process. 

Then, with the old tried and tested combination of originality and perseverance, this new reggae sound just got better and better, until the world was awash by this beach-bound boon to the seventy’s concrete encroachment. The genre is now not only the western music of choice in many parts of the world, namely Africa and South East Asia, but it has influenced every form of modern pop. 

It is this influence that Keith Richards tries to celebrate in his own rock ‘n’ roll, “What I love about reggae,” he says, “is that it’s all so natural, there’s none of this forced stuff that I was getting tired of in rock music.” He then goes on to clarify, “Rock & Roll I never get tired of, but ‘rock’ is a white man’s version, and they turn it into a march, that’s [the modern] version of rock. Excuse me,” he adds humorously, “I prefer the roll.”