50 Golden Years of Music

Over 50 years in Jamaica, music has certainly come a long way

by Nadine White
Jamaican music can be traced back to early 19th century, ‘Mento’. Often confused with Calypso music, which has its roots in the neighbouring Isle of Trinidad, Mento was often referred to as ‘Jamaican Calypso’, due to their close rhythmic and instrumental similarity.  Mento is a wonderful fusion of African and European Folk music; lyrically light hearted, it came as a pre-cursor to ‘Ska’ music, which emerged around  the late 1950s.
Jamaican Ska was heavily influenced by, of course, Mento but also by American Rhythm & Blues, which also began to rise in prominence, across the Atlantic.  This new American sound came to the ears of the Jamaican people via Sound systems. Sound Systems were formed by pioneers such as Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd and Prince Buster. People flocked to these massive street parties in their numbers, to take in some of this R&B. It wasn’t long before budding Jamaican vocalists were forming their cover versions of these same American tracks – with a twist- which would be played as ‘exclusive’ cuts or ‘dubs’!
The year is 1962. Independence fever has hit. Jamaica is abuzz with the prospect of ‘new’ – the perfect cue for the up-tempo ‘Ska’ beat – which was the soundtrack for these jubilant times.
 Between Independence Day and the Sound Systems, Ska music was catapulted into popularity. Much like its pre-cursors, it spoke of positivity, happiness and the occasional woe. The first International Ska hit was ‘Simmer Down’ by The Wailers in 1964 – 70,000 copies sold, stayed at the top of the chart for 4 months. ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Jamaican teenager, Millie Small, was also one of the biggest selling Ska records of all time. 
After the Independence euphoria had died down, the social-economic woes of the masses became the centre of focus once more, and this began to reflect in the slowing down of the music. 
In come ‘Rocksteady’ – a term coined by Alton Ellis, ‘The Godfather of Rocksteady’.  Emerging roughly around 1966, these songs were mainly about love. A lot is owed to this sub-genre; many high flying Reggae artists got their break from it – such as John Holt, who previously sang with ‘The Paragons’. Short lived, Rocksteady only really lasted a couple years before Reggae was born from its ashes.
Towards the end of 1960, there was a ‘great musical shift’ which coincided with the Civil Rights movement, taking place in the USA.  This decade was one concerned with gaining rights, ‘liberation’ – for instance, we saw the development of Feminism, Sexual awareness. 
Music in Jamaica became more concerned with social, economic and political affairs; much less seemingly care-free than Ska, Rocksteady and Mento combined. This, again, is an example of music becoming a soundtrack, as it were, to the feelings of the people and the times, surrounding it. During this movement, Bob Marley and The Wailers continued to  rise to prominence, bring the Reggae message with them. 
This message reached most areas of the media; in 1972 the film ‘The Harder They Come’ starring Jimmy Cliff and directed by Perry Henzell, made the world sit up and pay even more attention to Reggae music.
Dancehall music literally originated in the ‘dance hall’ parties in the late 1970s. Unlike the music forms which had come before, the new emergence of Dancehall did not mean the demise of its predecessor, Reggae. On the contrary, both genres continue to boom, even in today’s multicultural society.
Dancehall music, otherwise known as ‘Ragga’ or ‘Bashment’, involves the artist in question ‘deejaying’ or ‘toasting’ over any particular riddim. This is typically uptempo, suited to the fast paced and vibrant party feel. Many artists contributed to the popularisation of Dancehall, but one of the leading pioneers responsible for putting the genre on ‘the map’, is an artist by the name of Yellowman. He was Jamaica’s biggest export, after Bob Marley, and the first Dancehall artist to be signed by an American record label. 
Rich in history, Jamaican music continues to go from strength to strength, even drawing inspiration from other genres; for instance,  the Official ‘Jamaica 50’ song featuring artists such as Shaggy and Beres Hammond has elements of techno-pop. So great is the impact of Dancehall that it has a knock-on effect on Jamaica culture, from the variety of Dance moves to the ‘swagger’ and the ‘chat’. 
Jamaica, stand up!

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