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