Category Archives: Soapbox

Reggae is Weirder Than You Think, Part I: Reggae as World Music

Reggae is usually thought of as part of the rock/pop canon. For example, Q magazine – a UK mainstream rock magazine, whose cover stars include the likes of Coldplay, U2 or Kings of Leon – did a ‘guide to the ultimate music collection’ issue a few years ago. The buyer’s guide was split into genres, which a top 10 albums and top 50 songs for each genre. Reggae got its own section, alongside hiphop, rock, metal, pop and electronic music, meaning ten reggae albums and fifty reggae songs were listed by a mainstream rock magazine as among the music you simply must own if you know anything about music at all. Compare this to their ‘folk’ section, which included only five albums – by Woody Guthrie, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and, um, Devandra Banhart and Joni Mitchell. There was no generic ‘world music’ section or anything like it. Admittedly this is only one example from one shitty magazine, but it shows how much reggae, a genre of music still intimately linked to a Caribbean island with a relatively small population, is understood as simply another part of the rock/pop umbrella – ironically, more than the UK or USA’s own folk music.


Q Magazine did include this in their picks though, so they’re not complete idiots.


All Euro-American rock/pop music shares a common lineage from gospel, the blues and early R&B. From these common roots come subgenres of rock/pop as varied as boyband pop, indie rock, funk and hardcore punk. Reggae seems so familiar that we usually think of it as no more foreign to mainstream music than other ‘alternative’ strands of rock/pop like hiphop or metal. Hiphop developed out of funk and disco in 1970s New York, and heavy metal grew out of the British Midlands’ blues-rock scene in the late 1960s. From those beginnings, hiphop and metal have spread all over the world; their influence can be seen in all sorts of other genres of pop music, there are rappers in Nairobi and Nuuk, and metal bands in Sao Paolo and Tokyo. Reggae has achieved similar global reach: bands and singers from the UK to Côte d’Ivoire have attempted a ‘real’ reggae sound, and plenty of other bands have been influenced by reggae and incorporated elements of its sound into their own genres. We take it for granted that reggae is as much a part of the world’s musical landscape as hiphop or metal.

But let’s put this in some perspective. Reggae remains synonymous with Jamaica, a small island in the Caribbean with a population of about four million, to an even greater degree to hiphop’s connection to the USA, and certainly more than metal is connected to any particular country. The continued linkage is from the fact that reggae grew out of specifically Jamaican styles of music in the early 1960s, and remains the music of Jamaica in the way that son is for Cuba, or merengue is for the Dominican Republic; most of the musical innovations in those countries take that particular rhythm as the basis. (Incidentally, reggae, like merengue or Haiti’s compas, is a rhythm, as well as a genre of music, which is why lots of quite different-sounding music can still be called reggae, and simultaneously why idiots like to say ‘all reggae sounds the same’ – the basic rhythm used is the same.) In spite of this, reggae has spread all over the globe. We’re now so used to what reggae sounds like that we don’t realise how weird it is that this specifically Caribbean rhythm has become so familiar to so much of the world. Can you imagine high-street record shops or mainstream music magazines having sections on merengue or compas, in the sort of position reggae holds? (Forgive my out-of-date references, but you can change iTunes genre tags however you like, so it’s not quite the same.)



Reggae was, and remains, a genre of world music. Despite the fact that it usually involves lyrics in English (which tends to be the measure of ‘world music’ – see here), it is a genre which is rooted in a part of the world outside the UK/USA/Australia axis and retains many features which are linked to its island’s culture. Stylistically, reggae is no less a type of world music than is bhangra or Norteño music – both genres which have also grown up in ‘the English-speaking world’.

Reggae developed from several different strands of Jamaican music. Before reggae proper began in the late ‘60s, there was ska and rocksteady. Ska is described in the Rough Guide to World Music as “using fast R&B as the music’s basis, cutting out half the shuffle, leaving an abrupt series of off-beats” – in other words, it a Jamaican musical innovation that was a major contribution to the reggae rhythm. Ska was basically dance music and its success was perhaps linked to the optimism around the time of Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Rocksteady was a different musical style with, in general, less pronounced horn lines and more emphasised bass lines. Rocksteady’s lyrical content was often firmly rooted in the Jamaican experience: it was the music of rudeboys, singing about how tough they were and how crap life was in the shanty towns – I guess it was an equivalent to gangsta rap or hard-edged rock’n’roll records. Both of these genres contributed to the arrival of reggae in the late ‘60s, with the aesthetic and lyrics drawing on the specifically Jamaican rocksteady, and the music influenced by the specifically Jamaican rhythmic innovations made by ska.


Probably the most famous rocksteady song, from the classic soundtrack to The Harder They Come


Having said that, reggae has always had, and continues to have, links to the USA’s and UK’s musical cultures. In fact, every stage of the story of reggae involves the influence of US or UK music: early sound systems in Jamaica began by playing fast-paced US R&B records, the harmonies of rocksteady and early reggae groups were influenced by soul groups like the Impressions, the change in guitar and bass styles in the 70s probably owes something to funk, and since the 90s, ragga/dancehall and the various types of British ‘urban’ music, from drum’n’bass to grime, have cross-pollinated. But this isn’t unique: there are loads of examples of music from other countries being turned into something different. For example, various different styles of music in Africa have been heavily influenced by Cuban music, from Congolese rumba in the 50s (even the name of the genre comes from Cuba), to the likes of Orchestra Baobab in Senegal in the 70s. Reggae has borrowed a lot from US and UK rock/pop – and of course the influence has gone both ways – but reggae doesn’t have the same ultimate source in gospel and blues that all rock/pop shares.

Going further back than ska and rocksteady, the ultimate wellsprings of reggae are Jamaica’s folk and religious music. Many people point to the folk music style called mento as an important precursor to reggae; it contains the rhythmic seeds of ska and then reggae. Mento is now probably more known than it ever has been, thanks to various compilations that have been released and the continued efforts of mento band The Jolly Boys, who have been around since the 1940s and are still performing – although, unsurprisingly, not in the original incarnation of the band.



Other folk elements that have contributed to reggae include the various religious musical traditions that exist on the island. The most famous is probably Rastafari music, although only about 13% of Jamaica’s population are Rastas, which is quite surprising to learn when you consider just how many reggae stars have sung about Rastafari themes. Traditional Rasta music includes ceremonies called grounations, which include debate and ‘reasoning’, ganja consumption, Bible reading, hymns, and –most importantly for reggae – the style of drumming called nyahbingi. The influence of this slow, rhythmic drumming can be heard on many reggae records. There doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of traditional Rasta music available, but look out for Count Ossie and His Mystic Revelation of Rastafari – the album below is available for download from the usual places.



Jamaica is more religiously and musically diverse than is often thought. Other important folk traditions include the music of the Maroons – the original settlements of escaped slaves, who have continued to largely keep themselves to themselves – and various nonconformist Christian groups such as Revival Zion, who have musical traditions that are as far from staid hymn-singing as is the rawest US gospel. Some examples of these various traditions have been recorded by the inimitable Smithsonian Folkways, and the equally reliable Frémeaux et Associés recently released this exciting double CD of archive sounds. While these various traditions are definitely separate from reggae, they demonstrate how, both musically (rhythmically) and aesthetically, reggae is deeply rooted in Jamaican culture, in spite of the influence of US and British music. There’s a lot more examples of this, perhaps the most important being the local use of technology in ‘sound systems’, huge mobile discos which led to the idea of DJs chatting over the records. Eventually these deejays released ‘talkover records’ of their own, which later developed into the tradition of toasting in reggae, examples being the likes of U-Roy, Big Youth and Dr Alimentado above. Reggae was arguably the first music anywhere in the world that was primarily recorded music – deejays didn’t talk over live bands. See also the inventive use of technology that led to dub…

It now seems odd to talk about reggae exclusively with reference to Jamaica, given that some of the biggest reggae artists have come from outside the country – Aswad, UB40 and Steel Pulse from the UK, Lucky Dube from South Africa, Alpha Blondy (who made the amazingly titled album ‘Apartheid is Nazism’) and Tiken Jah Fakoly from Côte d’Ivoire, and so on. The point of my showing that reggae is so specifically Jamaican in its roots, its music and its aesthetic is to show that we can think about it as a type of world music, rooted in local traditions outside Euro-American rock/pop, just like Cuban son, Thai luk thung, Senegalese mbalax or any other type of local music you’d care to mention.


Ivorian Muslim reggae, proving that the reggae rhythm has been interpreted in various ways…


I think there’s something to be gained from reminding ourselves that reggae is, without doubt, a genre we could call ‘world music’. Putting reggae in its context as a type of Caribbean ‘world music’ allows for a different understanding of the genre, compared to thinking of it as a cousin to ‘70s punk or to early ‘00s hiphop. It also – and I won’t go on about this here; it deserves another post, another time – allows us to appreciate the true diversity of music in the world. Recognising reggae in its specificity, as ‘world music’, allows us to give it a different kind of attention from something that would normally be thought of within the Euro-American rock/pop hegemony. We can recognise reggae as a difference, an otherness, that has become normalised. This in turn allows us to think about other kinds of ‘world music’ in a different way, given how reggae has come to interact with the rock/pop world. Should other types of music aim for such ‘normalisation’? I think this is quite an interesting theoretical issue and I’ll write it more another time (so that you can avoid that post, if you like).

Many people have written about reggae’s history and roots in ska, rocksteady and folk music: if you want to read more, Lloyd Bradley’s book Bass Culture is often recommended. I’d also point you towards The Rough Guide to World Music, as usual, although you’ll need to find the older edition since the newest edition doesn’t include a volume on the Americas (boo hoo!). Also well worth a read is the excellent Rough Guide to Reggae, if you can find a copy; it’s been out of print for ages. I don’t doubt that some of you reading this might know more about reggae than me anyway, so feel free to comment/complain below.

I’ve been arguing that we should think of reggae and its relatives like ska, mento and rocksteady as forms of ‘world music’, but the question that remains is how reggae reached the point where it isn’t thought of in this way, while other similar types of music are thought of as ‘world music’. Tune in next time for Reggae is Weirder Than You Think Part II, where I’ll try to answer that question, and we’ll be discussing that Marley chap, calypso, salsa and why ‘70s punk has a lot to answer for…


Alright, it’s dub rather than roots, but I can’t write about reggae without mentioning this – one of my all-time favourites 

I’m on the radio! Listen!

I’ll be on the radio every week for the next month or two at 7-8pm Sunday evenings (UK time). The show is called Travelling Soul and the aim is to play soulful sounding music from around the world and show the similarities and differences, so as well as Sam Cooke, James Brown and Aretha Franklin you’ll hear Celia Cruz, Gilberto Gil, Mohammed Rafi and Orchestre Baobab. Previous themed shows have included ‘Queens of Soul’ and a Bollywood vs. disco special, with planned specials to come including ‘America in Africa/Africa in America’, the greater Caribbean and religious music. Click on to to listen, and point your browser at to see playlists, post requests, see videos I share and more.

RIP Jan Fairley

I’ve just learned today that the great music journalist Jan Fairley died on 9th June at the age of 63.  While it may seem late for this post now, it is still worth drawing attention to her amazing work. Holding an MPhil in Latin American Studies and a PhD in Ethnomusicology, Jan was a lecturer and academic, dancer, singer, DJ and more besides. A fuller list of her many, astonishing achievements can be found in this obituary – well worth a read. The reason I’m writing this post though is that she was a key contributor to Songlines magazine (see here) and the Rough Guide to World Music, where she displayed her staggering knowledge of many forms of Spanish and Latin American music, from flamenco to Chilean nueva cancion to  Cuban son to traditional Andean music. She was an excellent, passionate writer, with her immense knowledge and enthusiasm evident in everything she wrote, and I for one would know far less about music, and have heard fewer great records, without having read her. Whatever else, her death is a great loss to the world of music journalism, and indeed, to the ‘world music’ scene.

Her own WordPress blog is here.

What is ‘world music’ anyway?

I’m not going to use the term ‘world music’ to describe the stuff I post about on here, for a couple of reasons – mostly because it allows me to cover whatever music I like. But isn’t that strange – that the label ‘world music’ should exclude certain things, given that it is apparently a label just to conveniently encompass lots of wildly different types of music? What exactly is ‘world music’?

‘World’ is pretty useless as a way of describing what music actually sounds like. Musical genre labels, like ‘country’ or ‘metal’ or ‘rock and roll’ give us some idea of what the band sound like thanks to similar stylistic features which make up the genre. This obviously isn’t true for ‘world’; Columbian cumbia and Chinese qin music sound massively different and yet they’re both ‘world’. It’s easy to see then that ‘world’ is just a label applied to lump together a wide range of music that wouldn’t fit anywhere else in a record shop. Treating ‘world’ as if it’s a genre in the way, say, hip-hop is would be ridiculous, but there’s nothing wrong with HMV putting Ravi Shankar and Youssou N’Dour together in a section labelled ‘world’ – it demarcates the music found there from the various genres within ‘Western’ music, including the various post-rock’n’roll styles (everything from metal to hip-hop), jazz and European classical music. ‘World’ is a way of saying the different stuff, the stuff that doesn’t fit into these Anglophone categories (slightly different genres boundaries exist in France, for example, thanks to things like chanson). It would be easy to get on a political high horse about this seemingly exclusionary definition of music, but in purely practical terms, it’s not really very problematic. Very little of the music classed as ‘world’ is anything like as popular as music from the rock/pop, jazz or European classical genres, so it makes sense for big record shops to pay less attention to it. As for grouping it all together as ‘world’, it’s not uncommon for someone with an interest in one type of music described as ‘world’ to want to explore other, very different musical styles that are also filed under ‘world’ – hence the existence of things like The Rough Guide to World Music, and Songlines magazine.

So that seems to settle it – “world” isn’t a real genre in the way that rock or hip-hop are, but as a label of convenience, it’s fine. But once we start looking at exactly what is considered ‘world’ or not, we can see the difficulties and political dodginess of such an ill-defined label.

‘World’ encompasses musical styles that are not common in mainstream Anglophone culture. So it seems easy to label, say, gamelan music as ‘world’ – it’s very different from anything in the worlds of rock/pop, jazz or European classical. But musical difference from mainstream Anglophone culture is not the only deciding factor. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the fantastically successful Aborigine singer, is a good example of this.

Gurrumul is included in the Rough Guide to World Music, is covered in Songlines magazine (deservedly having been on the cover), and I would imagine that most record shops would include his albums in the ‘world’ section. But what makes this ‘world’ music? Gurrumul plays an acoustic guitar, which is hardly an exotic instrument for an Anglophone audience. His music is not really a great deal different from plenty of other acoustic singers who would be grouped as ‘singer-songwriters’ – everyone from Cat Stevens to Damien Rice. The only major difference between the style of music Gurrumul plays, and ‘singer-songwriter’ music, is the fact that this song, ‘Djarimirri’, is not sung in English.

Can it really be the case that the only thing that makes Gurrumul’s records ‘world music’ is the fact that he doesn’t sing in English? If so,  this causes problems for various reasons. Is French rap like IAM or NTM ‘world music’, just because they rap in French rather than English? The absurdity and near-jingoism of classing everything not in English as ‘other/world’ hardly needs to be stated, but thankfully that’s not even the case: there are hundreds of examples of groups that happen to use languages other than English that would never be classed as ‘world’ – Kraftwerk, to choose an obvious example, or the legions of metal bands from Japan. So there must be something about Gurrumul or his music, beyond the purely linguistic, that makes it ‘world’. To prove that point, have a listen to this Frank Yamma song – similar in style to Gurrumul, but see if you can spot the difference:

Of course, Yamma is singing in English. Acoustic guitar, English lyrics – what’s ‘world music’ about that? And yet there Yamma is in the same places as Gurrumul, the Rough Guide, Songlines and the ‘world music’ section of HMV. Why?

As horrendous as it seems to have to point it out, I can’t come up with any answer other than that Gurrumul and Yamma both happen to be Aboriginal Australians. What makes their music ‘world’  is their race – not even their country of birth, as Australia is a predominantly Anglophone country and could easily be included in the term ‘Western’. Nick Cave, another musical Australian, has made albums of low-key acoustic music not entirely unlike the two above songs, but it’s unthinkable that he would be described as ‘world music’. There is nothing especially ‘Aboriginal’ in the musical style of the two above songs. Tthe language used (as it so happens, my examples are just examples – both Gurrumul and Yamma have songs in both English and other languages) and even the country of origin of the singer are apparently irrelevant too: both these singers are classed as ‘world’ simply because of their race, the fact that they are Aboriginal Australians rather than Australians of European descent.

It’s difficult to not feel a bit more uneasy, then, about the usefulness of the term ‘world music’ if this is how we judge it – purely due to the singer’s race! An interesting counterpoint to the above examples might be bhangra – the high-octane, British-Panjabi version, rather than the traditional Panjabi folk music it is derived from.

Get those shoulders moving!

It’s a good question as to whether or not bhangra counts as ‘world’. I would imagine that most record shops put bhangra compilations in the ‘world’ section rather than the dance & electronic music section, but why should this be so? Although bhangra is usually primarily sung in Panjabi and is derived from traditional music from the Panjab, in its modern form it’s particularly British (see DJ Ritu’s excellent chapter on bhangra/’Asian Underground’ in Vol. 2 of the Rough Guide for an explanation of how bhangra as we know it now grew up in the Midlands in the ‘70s and ‘80s), and indeed often features English lyrics too, particularly for rap parts. It’d be difficult to argue that it’s completely alien to mainstream culture, too; I would guess that a lot of British people have at least some idea of what bhangra sounds like, and depending of where you live in the UK you may hear it fairly often! Although bhangra has sadly never quite taken to the pop charts in the way that other British genres like drum&bass, garage or even grime did, it’s worth remembering that Panjabi MC managed to get ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ to number 3 in the Top 40. Bhangra is just as British as grime or D&B, and in spite of its lack of presence in the pop charts, it’s about as prevalent in mainstream culture – perhaps even more so. So again, is the only issue one of race? If bhangra music did regularly make it into the Top 40, would that change our opinion of whether or not it counts as ‘world’?

I’m not so sure it would, if we look at America for a comparison. The ethnically ‘Latin’ (what a stupid phrase, eh?) population of the US is on the up, and the Spanish language is becoming more and more prevalent in the US. Even back in the 70s, the Fania All-Stars – the ultimate salsa supergroup – managed to sell out the Yankee Stadium, twice! Reggaeton – basically dancehall-reggae, but with Spanish lyrics – has some mainstream prevalence too. But salsa and reggaeton are both still ‘world music’, in spite of real mainstream success, the language being one that many people living in the US can understand, and the fact that reggaeton is a completely ‘modern’ style like hip-hop, rather than being anything ‘authentic’ or ‘exotic’.

See, Hispanic kids are just as clueless about good music as British kids!

The French singer Camille said in a recent interview that ‘world music’ is “such a colonialist term. In France world music starts in Africa. To you in England, world music starts in France.” She’s got some sort of a point, as the above examples have shown, but I don’t think she’s entirely right, as the final two examples will demonstrate.

Reggae has had a bit of an ambiguous position since it first started becoming popular with international audiences in the ‘70s. Despite the fact that most people still seem not to quite get it (“it all sounds the same, doesn’t it?”), at least everyone knows what reggae is and what it sounds like. I think this popularity – and the worldwide mega-success of Bob Marley and the Wailers – is the only thing that stops reggae being seen as ‘world music’. It’s music that is definitely rooted in a non-‘Western’ culture, both musically (Niyabinghi drumming) and ideologically, to use a lofty word (Rastafari). It’s difficult to see how other Caribbean musics like merengue, or particularly salsa, which is also known worldwide, should count as ‘world’, whereas reggae doesn’t. The fact that people know reggae as a genre in itself – everyone knows what reggae is, whereas your average British person probably wouldn’t recognise merengue – seems to be the only thing stopping it being lumped under ‘world’. Perhaps if Celia Cruz or Youssou N’Dour had managed to become as internationally well-known as Bob Marley did, then salsa and mbalax would also have sections of record shops to themselves, rather than being just part of ‘world’.

As a last example, let’s look at English folk. The debate as to whether or not English folk music counts as ‘world’ shows that what is or isn’t ‘world’ is not really arbitrary, but rooted in a particularly Anglophone cultural superiority. What does that mean? That means that arguing that traditional English music doesn’t count as ‘world’ is being like the English ladies on a cruise down the Rhine who heard some Germans discussing “the foreigners”, who promptly corrected the Germans, “No, we are English; it is you who are the foreigners.” If there is one type of music that can easily be agreed upon as ‘world’, it’s traditional music (side-stepping the incredibly complex debate as to what counts as ‘traditional’!). If folk music from Okinawa, the Mande tradition or Hungary counts as ‘world’, then why shouldn’t English music? Unless you have so little sense of relativism that you can’t see that English music is just as foreign to a Japanese person as Japanese folk is to a Brit, there’s very little grounds for excluding English folk from ‘world’, as if it’s unique and somehow different from other traditional music from anywhere else in the world.

Isn’t this just as interesting as Pygmy or Corsican polyphony?

‘World’, then, is a label of convenience, just a way of grouping together lots of disparate types of music – a necessary ill, created for the ease of record shops and magazines. Thus, it’s necessarily a nebulous term that’s defined in very broad strokes. However, if we look more closely at what usually counts as ‘world’, it seems that any definition cannot help but be political when it comes to what’s included, and what’s not. We should carry on using the term, by all means – but advisedly.