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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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
Burning Spear and
Toots & The Maytals, winner of the Antonio Carlos Jobim
Also among the headline events at the Fest's 2009 edition was Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, an
all-star concert featuring
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.