Roots of Reggae


I believe that enduring musical movements arise organically as opposed to being contrived solely for monetary gain or attainment of celebrity status. I also believe that most innovators don’t accomplish what they do by merely being iconoclasts.  By this I mean that there is a genuine desire on the part of the musicians to express some inner feeling or intellectual thought or simply to create something original. However, the music industry operates as though great music can be manufactured and the popular narrative usually holds that either some happy accident brings about an innovation or that the new model results from a revolt against the prevailing style.

While researching my posts on Rock and Roll I came across the following interesting nugget in Billboard magazine of Nov. 9, 1959, under the heading of “Jamaica Mark’t Building for US Disk Imports” the article states, “American r&b (sic) material in particular is a hot commodity here. On the other hand, Calypso is readily noted to be aimed mainly at the so-called “square” tourist trade.”  After citing Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Wynonie Harris and Roscoe Gordon as especially hot selling artists, Christopher Blackwell, “young disk executive and operator of Island Records” (and future discoverer of Jethro Tull, Traffic, Bob Marley and the Wailers and U2)  is quoted on the unique methods of distribution on the island. A particularly revealing sentence states that “Another method of exposure which can lead to a high demand is the typical Jamaican record hop. An entrepreneur will pick up a limited quantity of records in the states and play them on a phonograph at a public dance. Some records first become known in this way…” More will be said about this in another post. Other methods of distribution mentioned included license agreements between Jamaican or British record companies and their American counterparts.

I have read much nonsense over the years on how reggae came to be. One apocryphal tale is that Jamaicans heard distant radio broadcasts of American R&B (originating from Florida and Louisiana) and because the reception of these offshore broadcasts was coming from so far away they heard a whooshing or phasing effect and by imitating this oscillation they thereby created the distinctive upbeat which characterized, first Ska music, and later reggae. This is absurd on more than one level. First, AM radio transmissions travel long distances at night because of the ionosphere (trust me on this). My father used to listen to a Country station (then known as “Hillbilly” music) from Wheeling, WV (WWVA) in our home in a New York City suburb when I was a child. This was approximately the same distance between Jamaica and Florida and there was absolutely no whooshing sound in the reception. A second reason this theory is not sound is that Jamaicans were also buying and playing jazz and R&B records, not just listening to them on radio, as the aforementioned quote from Billboard confirms.  Furthermore, among the musicians who created Ska were seasoned studio players, trained in jazz, who had toured abroad (such as, guitarist Ernest Ranglin). These were not naïve folk musicians trying to recreate far-off sounds. They could play these tunes note-for-note. According to Jazz Times, jazz had been on the island since at least the early twentieth century and while some of the musicians migrated, such as trumpeter Dizzy Reece, others like Ranglin and Tommy McCook stayed and played the hotel circuit.

The story that rings true for me is that producer Clement “Coxone” Dodd had sensed that there was a longing for a new sound and he requested that Ernest Ranglin, who was the musical arranger at Federal Studios, come up with a sound that was more Jamaican in character. I can’t recall where I read this account (it may have been in the book “Reggae Explosion”. I don’t have a copy handy at present.) but, as I say, it rings true for the following reasons: By this time, Jamaican independence was inevitable and people could sense something in the air. The local recording industry could not grow by simply licensing foreign records and providing facsimiles of whatever was popular in the US. And, if you listen to early Ska, it is the guitar that stands out, providing the irregular subdivision of the beat.

Nevertheless, this sound was not merely a passing fad or a contrivance of the music industry. Ska, and by extension its successive iterations rock steady and reggae, was rooted in the history of the island and its people. If memory serves me well, Ranglin mentioned the influence of Mento on his musical choices. Mento is the Jamaican folk music that was an amalgam of African influences with the European Quadrilles or dance music that the colonial masters forced the slaves to perform. It is known to most of us through the songs of Harry Belafonte such as, Day-O and Jamaica Farewell which were wrongly labeled as Calypso when they became hits in the 1950’s, or to some of us through songs such as Linstead Market.

Ska was not a revolt against R&B. To the contrary, it fused R&B (a previous expression of African culture as heard through New World ears) with Mento, American jazz, and Cuban jazz, thus creating a new musical tradition out of existing elements. This simply demonstrates that one cannot help but be influenced by what one hears if one truly has an ear to listen. If you love a particular type of music – play it. Don’t worry if you are “authentic” enough. However, those who would like to simply manufacture music as if it were a commercial commodity cannot truly make music. And, those who feel that music is synonymous with fashion (Such as, Malcolm McLaren with the Sex Pistols.( See at 3:00 ) are also misguided. Finally, those who believe that music can be used simply as a business model enabling people to hook up (Remember Disco? Zappa also felt this way.) don’t truly understand music. To bring forth a musical tradition that endures one must transcend such shortsighted goals and concentrate on passion, feeling and creativity.

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