Born of a lively musical form called “mento” in the late 19th – early 20th centuries on the island of Jamaica, Reggae has evolved into a musical phenomenon that has taken the world by storm. From its very humble beginnings in rural Jamaica, African drumbeat rhythms infused with sounds from instruments such as the banjo, guitar, and the maracas were played by loosely organized bands at country dances or “rub ups” as they were called locally.
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Then in 1930s Kingston, street musicians sang songs that played on words with risqué lyrics to amuse the crowds while trying to earn a few pennies. Latin influences, possibly through worker exchanges with Cuba, South America and other islands of the Caribbean, added new beats. As this evolving mento-stew became more widespread, the lyrics were cleaned up for club entertainment.
Mento fused into Calypso in the 1950s. In rapid succession over the next two decades Calypso and Ska adapted the influence of American Rhythm & Blues and became Rocksteady. Add in the raw, explosive politics of poverty and the empowering spiritualism of the Rastafarian movement and Reggae emerged as the King of them all. This new music combined all the styles that went before it with a new urgency and spirit.
For years, limited recording facilities in Jamaica prevented the cataloging of this evolution. In the 1940s and 50s, US radio signals were picked up all over the island exposing people to America’s most popular tunes. As recording facilities were established, Jamaicans made versions of the imported music. Some of the best Ska tunes were based on the classic call and response pattern — the root of African work songs, and Rastafarian sectarian preaching. Fast moving Ska slowed its beat to form mellow, laid back Rocksteady. The bass guitar, the bedrock of Reggae, became the prominent beat with an emphasis on melody, requiring less chords. Vocals came to the forefront. Political protest and rage took a lyric form to speak of the people’s hardships.
The background of these pioneering bands were home grown in the poverty of Kingston’s ghettos. These intrepid musicians would play their own compositions and record cover versions of American pop tunes. The upsurge of black consciousness in the late 1960s paved the way for the extraordinary contributions of Reggae superstar Bob Marley.
Legend has it that the Reggae beat began purely by accident in a sound studio. The year was 1968. Engineer Ivan Morris played a guitar strum on a new piece of equipment, an echo phaser, hence the birth of Reggae’s guitar strum. In the mean time, young musicians Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston, Junior Braithwaite and two female back-up singers had been plying their trade as a group called The Wailing Wailers since the early 1960s, then simply called themselves The Wailers.
Although their initial musical endeavors were to record cover versions of popular R&B tunes, songwriter Marley's sing-talk style of call and response became the voice of rising social criticism and defiance. The entirely new sound that developed as a result of converging religious, political and musical influences landed The Wailers, Trenchtown, and the tiny island-nation of Jamaica on the map. Bob Marley is considered a folk poet who translated the people’s feelings of protest and spiritual belief. His music set a standard . . . a definitive style and sound to this genre, which is still evolving into newer forms of Dancehall and Ragga.
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