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by World Music Network January 09, 2013


The Music Of Jamaica: From Roots to Ragga

Despite the tiny size of the island, Jamaican music has long been a powerful force on a global scale. Even ignoring the deity that is Bob Marley and his reggae legacy, the island boasts a wealth of extraordinarily popular genres such as dancehall and dub, as well as having a long history of folk music, and lesser known, yet highly influential genres such as mento. 

Maroons & The Bongo Nation

Following the arrival of first Columbus, followed by the Spanish, and then Oliver Cromwell’s navy, the island’s indigenous population of Arawaks were soon wiped out. Small numbers of African slaves who had been armed by the Spaniards and instructed to defend the island against the British fled to the hills – where to this day, their descendants, the Maroons live in secluded communities. Their percussive style of music is difficult to find on recording, but still forms a vital part of the life of Maroons, as it is used in possession ceremonies.

Colonisation bought plantations to Jamaica – which were then thrown into turmoil by 1838’s abolition of slavery. To get around the new laws, plantation owners began secretly trading slaves of Angolan descent – who are the people behind the Bongo Nation, the people behind kumina religion and musical style which is not dissimilar to Maroon music. 


Given that it makes up a relatively small proportion of the island’s population, the influence of Rastafari religion on Jamaican musical culture, both locally and globally, is way out of proportion. Rastas hold reasoning sessions, in which they discuss religion, life, and politics, and smoke plenty of marijuana . These events are called grounations and, like any religious gathering, music is an important part of celebrations. Foot-stamping and slow drumming feature heavily. Count Ossie was a master Rasta drummer, and his band, Count Ossie and his Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, have made some extremely compelling recordings of grounations,which also feature players who went on to play with The Skatalites – showing the profound influence of Rastafari on Jamaican musical culture. 

Listen to grounationmusic by Count Ossie and his Mystic Revelation of Rastafari here:


Mento draws from many of Jamaica’s folk music styles, and primarily began as the music of slaves on the plantations – it was the sound of rural Jamaica in the 1940s, and can be said to resemble Trinidadian calypso. Many of the recordings we have today are thanks to Stanley Motta who in the 1950s identified the popularity of calypso, and therefore the potential popularity of mento, and so recorded artists such as Count Lasher, George Moxey and Lord Fly

Listen to a Stanley Motta recording of Lord Fly's song 'Mabel' here:

Sound Systems

Sound systems were an extremely significant development in Jamaican music, and helped to develop the Jamaican record industry. When radios finally became affordable to the majority of Jamaicans, there was a boom in the popularity of American R&B. Sound systems were essentially mobile street parties – DJs would load up their vans with speakers and a generator and play music into the early hours. In the early days of sound systems they would play mainly American R&B, but soon the music played began to have a more local flavour. Soundsystem chiefs Vincent ‘King’ Edwards, Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid and Cecil ‘Prince Buster’ Campbell, soon began to dominate the scene and became the island’s top record producers. At the close of the 1950s, Chris Blackwell founded Island Records, which featured releases from many of these top producers, and in 1964 recorded Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, which went on to become an international ska hit. 

Listen to Millie Small's song 'My Boy Lollipop' here:


With R&B as its basis, Ska cuts out the on beats of the shuffle, leaving a lilting series of off-beats. It uses the same line-up as R&B – piano, guitar, bass, drums as well as a few brass instruments. The music’s fast tempos mixed with powerful horn solos quickly took off in both Jamaica and Britain, and were associated with discontent. Emerging around the same time as Jamaican indepence, the music became an expression of those left destitute in fast-growing shanty towns with ever-increasing unemployment in areas such as Trench Town: giving way to the birth of the rudeboy. The Skatalites were the masters of Ska, being incredibly prolific and boasting one of the world’s finest, and yet sadly troubled trombonists, Don Drummond

Listen to 'Guns of Navarone' by The Skatalites here:


Even more than ska, rocksteady became the sound of the rudeboy. The horn lines faded from prominence, and the music slowed, allowing for the introduction of vocalists to the previously instrumental music. Typical of rocksteady  is the track ‘007’ by Desmond Dekker, which became a chart hit in both the UK and America – in this track you can hear that the bass has become more important, and the rhythm guitar is playing a steady off-beat – something that would develop into an important feature of reggae. Other prominent Rocksteady bands were Honeyboy Martin & The Voices, The Wailers, and The Claredonians

Listen to Desmond Dekker's '007' here:


In the 1970s, a new musical craze shook Jamaica. Reggae brought Jamaica’s roots to the fore – incorporating the rocksteady beat with the mento shuffle, as well as with the increasing popularity of funk from America. This musical development was accompanied by increasing mistrust of the authorities on the part of Jamaican citizens, and in turn a huge growth in numbers of Rastafari, who dismissed politics as ‘politricks’. It is here that Bob Marley first made his play on the world stage – having started out his career with ska and rocksteady group The Wailers, producer Lee Perry recognised their talent, and paired them with members of his studio band to release the albums Soul Rebelsand African Herbsman. From here he went from strength to strength, recording and performing with various combinations of backing musicians – placing reggae and Jamaica on the world map as a symbol of rebellion, and preaching the message of Rastafari. Not to be ignored on the Reggae scene, another key artist was Toots Hibbert, who joined with vocal group the Maytals to become Toots & The Maytals who also helped to reinforce the global popularity of reggae with classics like ‘Pressure Drop’. 


The space-like, atmospheric, mystical nature of Dub music was introduced to the world by Augustus Pablo. His record ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’ became a Dub milestone. Not to be ignored are also the contributions of Errol Thompson


Throughout the history of Jamaican popular music, the dancehall had always acted as the centre which the musical world revolved around. In the 1970s however, the word came to be associated with a specific style of music which made its name on the ‘slackness’ of its lyrics. This can be traced back to Mento, but reached new extremes in Dancehall music, with outrageous artists such as Yellowman and General Echo writing lyrics that were a far cry from the spirituality of Bob Marley’s. The music consists mainly of speaking over a sparse digital bass beat, giving the music a much more spacious feel than reggae. The music is associated with explicitly sexual dances such as ‘daggering’, and along with such a drastic change in music, came a change in fashion – women typically wear extremely scant, flashy and revealing outfits. Many have identified the contradictions in Dancehall culture, some saying that it draws too much from the Western, or Babylonian world from which it was created to oppose. Others, such as Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, have argued that it is ‘a celebration of the disenfranchised selves in postcolonial Jamaica’, as it provides an active sphere of cultural production which projects a very distinct identity.


Led by developments in digital music, ragga is essentially a faster style of dancehall which draws some influence from American hip-hop. Associated with the genre is the ‘raggamuffin’ style – the 1980s version of the rudeboy. Like dancehall, the music deals with topics such as cocaine, guns, and sex – a reflection of the state of affairs in Kingston at the time. Artists such as Chaka Demus, Stitchie, and Admiral Bailey characterise the sound of the time. This period also saw women take the foreground, with artists such as Lady G and Lady Saw providing us with their own, highly sexualised lyrics and music videos.

The Rough Guide To The Music Of Jamaica
This album showcases fifty years of the musical heritage that sets Jamaica apart as the loudest island in the world. From mento through ska, rock steady and reggae to the 'new roots' school, this Rough Guide represents great artists often left in the shade by the well-deserved success of Bob Marley. This album provides a valuable introduction to the vibrant and multi-faceted Jamaican music scene, which has proved enduringly popular on the world-stage. Click here to listen/buy