Festival International de Jazz de Montréal


Reggae music first emerged in Jamaica in about 1968. The fruit of a medley of musical influences, the genre is linked, inextricably, to its country of origin: music is part of the fabric of everyday life in Jamaica. Since the charismatic Bob Marley shot to international fame in the mid-1970s, reggae has continued to draw audiences worldwide thanks to such artists as Burning Spear and Alpha Blondy.


Reggae music originated in the musical traditions of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as in the music of African Americans. Its direct musical descendants are ska and rocksteady – two closely related and quintessentially Jamaica genres.

Ska, for its part, first became popular in the early 1960s. This brass-dominated instrumental style combined mento – a traditional folk genre – with boogie-woogie, jazz and blues. Characterized by a slow bass-driven tempo and an emphasis on vocals, rocksteady enjoyed a brief heyday from 1966 to 1968. Leading the way were groups like The Paragons featuring singer John Holt, and the Wailers, fronted by a young vocalist named Bob Marley.

Toots & The Maytals The transition from ska to rocksteady and then reggae occurred in just a few years. By 1968, it was a fait accompli. The resulting genre, reggae, retained the rocksteady style – guitars playing on the offbeat and the accentuation of the third beat in a 4/4 bar – while the emphatic bass and drums spoke to the influence of American R&B, jazz and soul. Reggae's early frontrunners included Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and Toots & The Maytals, who're credited with coining the term "reggae" on their 1968 song Do The Reggay.

With the advent of the one-drop rhythm – one of the hallmarks of the Marley style – in about 1972, the reggae tempo began to slow, the drums, bass and brass still driving the bus, however. Reggae, for all intents and purposes, had crystallized into the form that became the standard. Also at this time, emerging Rasta artists such as Gregory Isaacs, the Abyssinians and Burning Spear took the genre in more spiritual direction.

The Marley Phenomenon

In 1973, Bob Marley launched his solo career, and soon thereafter, in 1975, he vaulted to worldwide success with his live version of No Woman No Cry. All at once, Bob Marley became reggae's emblematic figure and its international ambassador. Riding this new-found wave of popularity, other artists continued to push the genre forward: drummer Sly Dunbar and bassists Lloyd Parks and Robbie Shakespeare developed a more up-tempo reggae style, which they named rockers. The Marley tune, Punky Reggae Party, is a prime example of the rockers style.

With Marley's 1977 move to London, white audiences, more than ever, began to embrace Jamaican music. This period also saw punk groups like The Clash call upon legendary reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry. The Police, too, played the reggae card on such tunes as Roxanne, thus bridging the cultural divide, so to speak, through music.

In the early 1980s, violence erupted in Jamaica, triggered in part by a surge in cocaine trafficking. The volatile social climate had a direct influence on musical themes, with spirituality giving way to sex, drugs and the glorification of gunplay.

After Marley was claimed by cancer in 1981 at the age of 36, a new generation of reggae artists like Sugar Minott and Half Pint tried to step into the breach; but with the entire industry in mourning, financing for new projects was put on hold for a period.

Beatbox Reggae

Alpha Blondy In 1984, producer King Jammy gave birth to a new sound that would have a profound impact on the industry: digital reggae, or raggamuffin. With beatboxes and sequencers, it was now possible to record at a fraction of the usual cost.

Also in the 1980s, reggae fever swept the African continent thanks to Ivory Coast native Alpha Blondy and South African Lucky Dube. British bands such as UB40 also succeeded in reaching an international audience.

In the mid-1990s, dance clubs the world over echoed with the sound of rap and hip-hop – inner-city genres with a decidedly Jamaican influence. This period also marked the return of Rasta themes: the album ‘Til Shiloh (1995) by the popular Buju Banton is coloured by his sudden conversion. The following year, the American group The Fugees achieved considerable success with their version of No Woman No Cry, which featured Ziggy Marley, son of Bob.

Burning Spear In the 2000s, the enduring popularity of Burning Spear showed that the traditional roots reggae style had lost none of its appeal. But with the advent of globalization, Jamaica, too, has come under the sway of outside influences: the German group Seeed collaborated with Jamaican Elephant Man on his song Shake Baby Shake, while Italian reggae artist Alborosie now calls the island home. Other reggae artists who've enjoyed success since 2000 include Richie Spice, for his 2005 album Spice in Your Life, and Damian Marley, whose 2005 album Welcome to Jamrock is a progressive blend of reggae, hip-hop, pop and roots.

Jamaican dancehall, meanwhile, continues to evolve at breakneck speed, with stylistic developments occurring on an almost daily basis. Popular dancehall artists include Vibz Kartel, Mavado and Cham, who rose to prominence with his 2006 album Ghetto Story.

Reggae at the Festival

Stranger Cole Several of reggae's biggest names have taken the stage at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. In 2009, reggae lovers received a special treat as the Festival's 30th anniversary welcomed Alpha Blondy, Burning Spear and Toots & The Maytals, winner of the Antonio Carlos Jobim Award.

Also among the headline events at the Fest's 2009 edition was Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, an all-star concert featuring Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole, Hopeton Lewis, Leroy Sibbles and The Tamlins, as well as Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt – two-thirds of the original "I Threes", Marley's legendary trio of backup singers.

Also worthy of mention are the Australian group Blue King Brown, with their engaged brand of reggae, and the Stomp All-Stars, a group of major players on the Montreal reggae, ska and punk scene.

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