The feel-good beat and impassioned lyrics of reggae resonate with listeners across the globe, and experiencing reggae in the country of its birth is special way to enjoy the music.
Widely considered to be Jamaica’s seminal music form, reggae was born out of other genres, including ska and rocksteady, and is relatively young compared with other Jamaican musical styles. In fact, the history of Jamaican music is as long as the history of the island itself. Reggae’s origins are firmly rooted in traditions of African music, and its lyrics are inspired by Jamaicans’ fervid resistance to colonialism and imperialism. Reggae can be distinguished from earlier music forms by its comparatively faster beat, its experimental tendencies, and a more prominent role for the guitar. Reggae is also more “ragged”—both in sound and in concept. That is, it’s both more earthy and down to earth, or folkloric. Lyrically, reggae is rife with social themes, primarily those that explore the plight of the working classes.
Did You Know? The first appearance of the word reggae is widely attributed to the 1968 single by the Maytals called “Do the Reggay.”
Pioneering reggae musicians, such as drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, shaped the genre by distilling what they viewed as the best elements of ska and rocksteady. Reggae is not complex in terms of chord structure or rhythmic variation. There may be only one to three chords in a typical reggae song, and the danceable feel is propelled most commonly by a rhythm—or “riddim”—called the “drop beat” or “one drop.” The drummer's bass drum emphasizes the third beat in a four-beat cycle, creating an anchor that the guitar and bass play on top of. For a more propulsive feel, the drummer may equally emphasize all four beats in each measure. Layered on top of this repetitive, solid foundation are socially conscious lyrics, which often preach resistance to the establishment or beseech listeners to love one another.
Reggae and Rasta
Reggae is a musical genre of, by, and for the people, and the influence of Rastafarianism has expanded its folk appeal. Rasta became pervasive in Jamaica in the 1950s, when resistance to colonialism peaked. Rasta, combining spiritual, political, and social concerns, had its origins in the crowning of Haile Selassie I as the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. Selassie, the only black man to head an independent African nation at the time, became a vital figure and symbol of freedom for Africans in the diaspora. Greatly inspired by Selassie, Jamaicans integrated his empowering messages into many aspects of their culture. Musically, the Rasta influence is felt in reggae in two ways. The lyrics often advocate the idea of returning to Africa, and minor chords and a simple “riddim” structure characterize the songs. In the words of music historian Lloyd Bradley, Rastas were the “underclass of the underclass,” and by 1959 more than one in every 25 Jamaicans identified with Rastafarianism. One of them was Bob Marley.
Bob Marley is reggae’s oracle, a visionary who introduced the world to the music of Jamaica and the struggles of its people. A stirring performer with a preternatural talent for connecting with audiences, Marley revealed the oppression of his countrymen and their indomitable spirit through his songs of hope, freedom, and redemption. His legacy extends far beyond reggae, influencing generations of artists across multiple genres.
Born in February 1945, Robert Nesta Marley left his home in rural St. Ann’s Parish, Jamaica, at 14 to pursue a music career in Kingston. In 1963 Marley joined with singers Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston to form the group the Wailers, and they began recording singles with a renowned local producer. After a series of stops and starts and a strengthened devotion to the teachings of the Rastafari faith, Bob Marley and the Wailers released Catch a Fire in 1973. It was their first release outside of Jamaica, and nearly instantly it became an international success. Marley’s global popularity and acclaim grew with albums like Burnin' and Natty Dread. Regarded by many of his countrymen as a prophet, Marley, whose songs of freedom and revolution reverberated throughout Jamaica, was perceived as a threat in some corridors. In December 1976, he was wounded in an assassination attempt. Marley left Jamaica for more than a year and in 1977 released his biggest record thus far, Exodus, which included the hits “Jammin” and “One Love/People Get Ready.” By 1980, Marley was poised to reach even greater heights with an extensive U.S. tour, but while jogging in New York he suddenly collapsed. He died in May 1981, of cancer, at age 36. Marley’s spirit and music endure, and his greatest hits collection, Legend, is the top-selling reggae album of all time.
The Reggae Experience in Jamaica
Whether you’re a serious enthusiast or have just a passing curiosity, Jamaica offers visitors plenty of opportunities to experience the music and culture of reggae.
Zion Bus Line Tour to Nine Mile. Marley fans won’t want to miss this bus pilgrimage to the reggae icon’s birthplace and final resting place. The guided tour takes you through the mountains to the small town of Nine Mile. The half-day tour includes a visit to Marley’s house, a stop at Mount Zion (a rock where Marley meditated), and the opportunity to view Marley’s mausoleum. The tour leaves from Ocho Rios.
Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay. This weeklong reggae festival is held each July. In addition to featuring musical lineups of the most popular reggae, dance hall, R&B, and hip-hop acts, the Sumfest offers traditional Jamaican food and local crafts. Local favorite Tarrus Riley, as well as international performers, like LL Cool J and Mary J. Blige, have attended.
Bob Marley Museum in Kingston. (876/630–1588). If the Zion Bus Tour only whets your appetite for Marley, visit the Bob Marley Museum for a glimpse at another chapter of his life. Housed inside the former headquarters of Marley’s label, Tuff Gong Records, it is also the site of the failed attempt on Marley’s life that inspired his song “Ambush.”
Live Music. Bourbon Beach (876/957–4432) in Negril features bands on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday nights. Also in Negril is Rick’s Cafe (876/957–0380), which features an in-house band nightly, and Alfred’s Ocean Palace (876/957–4669,) where you can dance on the beach to live reggae.
Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey
Jimmy Cliff: The Harder They Come
The Congos: The Heart of the Congos
Alton Ellis: Alton Ellis Sings Rock and Soul
Bob Marley: Uprising, Legend, Exodus, Burnin’, Catch a Fire
Toots and the Maytals: Funky Kingston
Peter Tosh: Legalize It
Dancehall. A modern style that introduces elements of electronic dance music and improvised singing or rapping by DJs to raw reggae tracks.
Dub. A form of reggae characterized by the use of remixes of previously recorded material.
One-drop rhythm. The definitive beat of reggae characterized by a steady “drop” of the bass drum on the strong beat in each measure.
Ragamuffin (ragga). Similar to dancehall, ragga combines electronic dance music, hip-hop, and R&B with reggae for a more contemporary, club feel.
Riddim. The rhythmic foundation for nearly all reggae styles, characterized by a repetitive, driving drum and bass feel.
Rocksteady. A style of reggae that followed ska, rocksteady is marked by a slower tempo.
Ska. Precursor to reggae that combines traditional Caribbean rhythms, jazz, and calypso.
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