Reggae is a style of popular music that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s and quickly emerged as the country’s dominant music.
Stylistically, reggae incorporates some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, mento, calypso, African, and Latin American music, as well as other genres. Reggae scenes consist of two guitars, one for rhythm and one for lead—drums, congas, and keyboards, with a couple of vocalists.
The 1967 edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English lists reggae as “a recently estab. sp. for rege”, as in rege-rege, a word that can mean either “rags, ragged clothing” or “a quarrel, a row”. Reggae as a musical term first appeared in print with the 1968 rocksteady hit “Do the Reggay” by the Maytals which named the genre.
Reggae historian Steve Barrow credits Clancy Eccles with altering the Jamaican patois word streggae (loose woman) into reggae.
Bob Marley claimed that the word reggae came from a Spanish term for “the king’s music”. The liner notes of To the King, a compilation of Christian gospel reggae, suggest that the word reggae was derived from the Latin regi meaning “to the king”.
Reggae’s origins reflect the cultural hybridity for which the Caribbean is known. Reggae’s roots trace back to the late 1940s and 1950s when the Jamaican recording industry was in its infancy. Mento—a rural-based music that developed from the period of slavery and which came to be influenced by Trinidadian calypso in the urban context of Kingston, was then the popular music. By the late fifties, a new style known as ska burst onto
the urban scene.
Reggae is deeply linked to Rastafari, an Afrocentric religion which developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, aiming at promoting pan-Africanism. Soon after the Rastafarian movement appeared, the international popularity of reggae music became associated with and increased the visibility of Rastafari and spread its gospel throughout the world. Reggae music is an important means of transporting vital messages of Rastafari. The musician becomes the messenger, and as Rastafari see it, “the soldier and the musician are tools for change.”
Perhaps the most famous reggae band, Bob Marley & The Wailers, formed in 1963 and was initially known for its ska and dancehall hits, inspired by contemporary bands like The Skatalites. But as reggae took off, singer-songwriter Marley, guitarist Peter Tosh, percussionist Bunny Wailer, and bass guitar player Aston Barrett embraced the genre and produced a string of hits like the albums Burnin’ (1973) and Exodus (1977).
Whether it was Derrick Morgan who originated the new sound, or the Maytals with their 1968 album “Do the Reggay,” or any of the other popular theories out there, there was room for many in this new genre as its popularity quickly grew, surpassing the previous scope of the island’s preceding musical forms. The music itself was faster than rock steady, but tighter and more complex than ska, with obvious debts to both styles.
On 20 February 2010, the album In Dub Vol.1 gave Bob Marley & The Wailers (Jamaica) their 35th entry and 12th No.1 on the US Reggae Albums chart. Legend – The Best Of Bob Marley And The Wailers, with sales of over 10 million in the US alone, is the biggest-selling reggae album of all-time.
Roots reggae is the name given to explicitly Rastafarian inspired reggae: a spiritual type of music whose lyrics are predominantly in praise of Jah (God). Recurrent lyrical themes include poverty and resistance to government oppression. The creative pinnacle of roots reggae may have been in the late 1970s, with singers such as Burning Spear, Johnny Clarke, Horace Andy, Barrington Levy, and Linval Thompson teaming up with studio producers including Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, King Tubby, and Coxsone Dodd.
Reggae’s impact on the culture of Jamaica, world culture, and the international music scene, can be seen as both positive and questionable. There is no doubt that early reggae music, as well as its predecessors ska and rocksteady, contributed phenomenally to forming a unique Jamaican identity attractive enough to garner world attention. Such attention helped the poor nation to progress economically, directly through the growth of its record industry as well as indirectly through an increase in tourism, as well as instill in its inhabitants a national pride.
In many ways, reggae music in the early days provided a positive influence for fans worldwide, as many of its message advocated pacifism, world peace, and the concept of a global family. However, there were also mixed signals generated by popular reggae artists, which included the spiritual use of marijuana, which was often blurred with recreational use of the substance. This contributed greatly to the world’s partaking of marijuana, as it made the already popular drug appear even more attractive, as reggae artists were often perceived by overseas fans as exotic, creative, and cool. The impact of reggae music on world culture today is less intense than it was in its formative years. Its role in Jamaica’s economy remains significant.