Jamaican artists created influential musical styles influenced by both Caribbean and African folk music: ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub and dancehall – their influence can still be felt today in popular music worldwide.
Ska developed out of mento, calypso and American rhythms; rocksteady added a slower beat and lyrics discussing social criticism and religion. This style helped Bob Marley and the Wailers make reggae known worldwide.
1. Bob Marley
Bob Marley was a Jamaican singer-songwriter renowned for popularizing reggae music worldwide. His songs carried messages of peace and love while advocating for cultural unity and political unification. His rastafarian faith motivated him to work toward better lives for all people – this legacy continues today despite Bob’s short life span.
Reggae music’s roots lie in Jamaican folk music called mento. This vibrant amalgamation of African and European traditions emerged during colonization when cultural identities came together; instruments used included guitar, rhumba box, flute, banjo and double bass; its melodic structure providing an ideal complement to reggae’s rhythmic drumming.
Marley first rose to fame as part of The Wailing Wailers, formed with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston in 1963. Their initial hits “Judge Not” and “Simmer Down,” both reached #1 on Jamaican charts in 1964. Marley rose further when his album Rastaman Vibration was released worldwide the same year; its lyrics inspired by faith as well as social change; this allowed him to become an ambassador of Jamaican culture and Rastafarian religion around the globe.
Marley and the Wailers recorded their next album, Kaya, in 1978 with new spiritual influences infused into their music – this included hits like “Satisfy My Soul” and “Is This Love”. Marley became interested in politics during this period; thus leading him to hold peace concerts to help unite Jamaica’s various political factions and establish his sociopolitical influence globally. His sociopolitical impact became legendary and made him an international celebrity.
Death from Melanoma only cemented his legacy as one of reggae music and an advocate for peace and love. Legend, released as his greatest hits album in 1984, became the best-selling reggae artist of all time; and its song, No Woman No Cry” remains timeless today.
2. Toots and the Maytals
Toots and the Maytals, led by Jamaican-born Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert (known simply as Toots), is widely recognized as one of the most influential groups in ska and reggae history. Their music showcased Jamaican sounds fused with American R&B influences like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett; Hibbert’s expressive vocal style was heavily influenced by these artists as well.
Toots and the Maytals won the inaugural Jamaican Independence Festival Song Competition with “Bam Bam,” becoming instant hits both locally and in Britain; their rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads” reached #1 on British pop charts.
Funky Kingston was the album that propelled them to international stardom, released on Island Records a year before Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire and introduced reggae music to new listeners while expanding its appeal.
Toots and the Maytals’ compositions saw renewed popularity during 1978-80 during the reggae punk and ska revival period, when bands such as the Specials and Clash covered many of their songs; additionally their music was included as the soundtrack of film The Harder They Come.
Toots and the Maytals’ most iconic song is “Pressure Drop.” Boasting warm harmonies backed by an energetic rhythm section, its soothing island sound creates an enjoyable listening experience. Written as a revenge song against Toots after his recording contract was terminated, its barometric pressure references severe weather changes in Jamaica that can be tracked through barometer pressure measurements.
Toots and the Maytals were among the pioneers of reggae music to embrace dub technology, which involved stripping away vocals while adding instrumental tracks over a bassline and rhythm track. This created a striking psychedelic effect, especially noticeable with Toots and the Maytals’ soulful, gospel-fueled vocals merging perfectly with their signature ska beats to produce unmistakable sounds that still sound authentic today.
Reggae remains an active genre today, although other music styles have seemingly stolen listeners’ attention away from it and into mainstream listening habits. Still, artists still keep alive its distinctive roots sounds that made reggae famous during its peak decades in the 1960s and 70s; some perform digital versions while others combine reggae with other genres such as heavy metal.
Sizzla is an example of this. Born Miguel Orlando Collins and devout Rastafari, his name “Kalonji” symbolizes his god-given spiritual strength. Beginning his career early 1990s with Xterminator Records label, Sizzla has released several critically-acclaimed albums over time.
One of the hallmarks of reggae music is its bass-driven rhythm. This distinctive feature of reggae music is defined by its bass guitar playing an octave lower than the melody to create a pulsating effect known as skanking, while lead guitar often adds rock or blues-influenced melodies and sometimes creates countermelodies against bass line. Horn sections can also often be found present.
Reggae songs often address social issues like economic injustice, racism and poverty in their lyrics. Reggae also features strong Rastafari influences which have had an effect on several of its most acclaimed artists such as Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, Bob Marley and dancehall music from the 1980s onward. Deejays who perfected “toasting” (rapping over instrumental tracks) became part of this politicization of reggae while Matisyahu seamlessly combined religious and secular themes into his songs with Jewish melodies to produce his acclaimed work.
Sizzla led the charge in the late 1990s to return dancehall to its musical and spiritual roots alongside artists like Buju Banton and Capleton, preferring organic productions with Rastafarian themes over synthetically synthesized sounds of rap music. His vocal condemnations of homosexuals and white Western oppressors has sometimes caused controversy; yet he remains an advocate for faith and compassion among poor black youth.
4. Steel Pulse
Steel Pulse remains one of the most influential reggae bands ever, creating their signature style through mixing authentic roots music with jazz and Latin influences to form one unique sound. Their 1978 debut, Handsworth Revolution, remains widely considered an influential record. By late ’80s they had won a Grammy award and ventured fully into crossover territory.
The group first formed in 1975 in Handsworth, Birmingham, England. Schoolmates David Hinds (the primary songwriter and lead vocalist), Basil Gabbidon, Steve “Grizzly” Nisbett and Selwyn Brown formed its original roster. Although initially having difficulty finding live gigs due to perceived Rastafarian politics, they eventually found an ideal venue as opening acts for punk and new wave acts such as The Stranglers and XTC.
Their theatrical stage shows provided social commentary through humor; many members donned costumes mocking traditional British archetypes (Riley was a vicar, McQueen an aristocrat in bowler hat and Martin was a coach footman), among others. This theatrical approach helped Island Records recognize them.
Steel Pulse were known for their musical talents as well as their dedication to Rastafarianism, with its themes of spirituality, social justice and African heritage. Their lyrics often denounced unfair enslavement, racism intolerance and miserable life conditions while criticizing political systems and “Babylon.”
Reggae music often addresses topics related to black nationalism, antiracism and colonialism – many musicians associated with the genre identify themselves as Rastafarians.
Lead guitar can often add rock or blues-style melodic solos to a track, but is also quite prominent in reggae dub, which typically reduces down to just drum and bass line with other instruments such as vocals and counter melody as counter melodies. Horn sections are often present, featuring trombones, saxophones or trumpets; toasting vocal styles have long been used by DJs improvising along to dub tracks as an early precursor of rap music.