Reggae Is Weirder Than You Think, Part II: Why Reggae Isn’t ‘World Music’
After I posted Part I of Reggae Is Weirder Than You Think, I had a few people say to me that it seemed really strange to them to think of reggae as ‘world music’, because it was just music that was part of their upbringing and as ‘normal’ as rock’n’roll. Well, that was kind of my point – reggae is ‘world music’, if by that we mean a genre of music that doesn’t have its roots in the Euro-American rock/pop or classical traditions, but we tend not to think of it this way and it might seem strange to do so. In Part I I argued for why I think we could think of reggae as ‘world music’ (whether we should think of it this way is for another time) – in Part II I’m going to suggest some of the reasons why we don’t think of it this way.
The main reason reggae doesn’t seem like ‘world music’ is, I think, a single person – Bob Marley. It annoys me when people talk about the man when they mean the band – even after Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left, the band were called ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’, not just ‘Bob Marley’ – but in the case of what helped reggae spread around the world, I definitely mean Bob Marley himself. The Wailers are, it goes without saying, the world’s most successful reggae band, and in terms of sales they’re more comparable to rock bands than to any of their reggae contemporaries. The story of how exactly The Wailers, or Bob Marley and the Wailers, became quite so successful in Euro-America, is a long one that more knowledgeable people than me have written about, but essentially, a combination of factors, such as the fact that they played their own instruments and so fitted into the Euro-American rock press’ idea of what a ‘band’ should be, along with the serious financial push that Island Records were able to give them, meant that the Wailers were able to succeed as a mainstream reggae band – or rather, a mainstream band who happened to play a ‘third world’ genre of music called ‘reggae’. Their success, catchy songs and Bob’s star charisma mean that the Wailers have pretty much become synonymous with reggae in many people’s minds. One of the reasons reggae has stuck around in the mainstream consciousness, unlike some other genres, is the enduring star power and fame of Bob, coupled, it must be admitted, with the fact that he wrote some great pop songs. You can, in the UK at least, still hear Wailers songs played during the daytime on middle-of-the-road radio stations like Radio 2 or Smooth FM; you don’t hear other ‘foreign’ singers like Miriam Makeba or Serge Gainsbourg, despite the fact that they had songs which were big hits in the Anglosphere too. This is kind of amazing considering that many of the Wailers’ songs include explicit references to Rasta theology – think of ‘Get Up, Stand Up’s “We know and understand/Almighty God is a living man” – or that even the titles are in patois that is difficult for middle-class British people to understand. (I know several people who thought ‘No Woman No Cry’ meant something like ‘if you don’t have a woman you won’t be upset’.) Bob Marley has remained an icon in Euro-America in a way that very few other non-Euro-American singers have. This cements reggae as ‘pop music’ in many people’s minds: Bob is familiar, therefore reggae is familiar, therefore reggae must be part of ‘normal’ rock/pop music. How could one of the world’s biggest pop stars play ‘world music’?
From the Wailers’ very early days as a ska band. Look how young they all look!
It’s worth realising as well that Bob Marley genuinely is one of the world’s biggest pop stars. He’s one of the most famous musicians of the twentieth century, famous in the same way as Elvis, the Beatles, Oum Kalsoum and… well, that’s probably about it. Think how many different products you can buy with Bob’s face on them. He is, still, known all over the world, and remains an absolute hero to many people. The Wailers’ songs about fighting for freedom have ensured that the band have been taken to the hearts of many groups of people who see themselves as suffering from oppression, and their performance to celebrate Zimbabwean independence in 1980 cemented the band’s, especially charismatic central figure Bob’s, image as revolutionaries. Rather than just a musician, Bob Marley is seen as a revolutionary hero, “a poet and a prophet” to quote a (gulp) Red Hot Chili Peppers song. The popularity of reggae in West Africa, and amongst Australian Aborigines and First Nations people in North America is linked to Marley’s image as a ‘sufferer’, a rebel and a freedom fighter. I recently heard a lesbian Maori/Samoan woman who works for a women’s refuge give a talk (long story), and she claimed that Bob Marley was a personal hero of hers, and seen as a figurehead to Maori women in “the struggle”, i.e. the feminist movement in Aotearoa (notwithstanding Bob’s own relationships with women, presumably). It’s difficult to overestimate how well-known and how loved Bob Marley is all over the world, meaning that reggae continues to be known worldwide too.
No sane person ever needs to hear any of the songs on ‘Legend’ ever again, but come on – they couldn’t half write songs
This is a bit of a reductive argument, but I think Marley is the main reason reggae has remained in the mainstream consciousness. This is reflected in the fact that pretty much everyone knows what reggae is, despite the fact that the genre nowadays is as far away from the mainstream, international pop charts as any other genre of world music. How many contemporary reggae singers or deejays could the person on the street name, except maybe Sean Paul, whose career began back in the late nineties? The version of ‘reggae’ that exists as ‘not world music’ in most people’s minds is late ‘70s roots reggae – maybe extending to the tail-end of ska and the early style of reggae featured on the ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack. Reggae being produced in Jamaica was actually only internationally successful for a relatively brief period, and it’s an ossified version of this that remains most people’s definition of the term. Even many latter-day international reggae stars, like Côte d’Ivoire’s Alpha Blondy or Tiken Jah Fakoly, or the many Aboriginal bands that play reggae, play in an essentially anachronistic style that doesn’t even account for the digital reggae revolution of the early ‘80s, let alone anything more recent. In the UK in particular, I think late-‘70s reggae remains in the mainstream consciousness largely due to punk nostalgia.
People of a certain age love to wax lyrical about how amazing it was to be around in the late ‘70s when punk was a big deal, although very few of these people, in my experience at least, seem to have taken the supposed anti-establishment ideals of punk to heart. In any case, punk nostalgia is big business, and so the supposed connection between punk and reggae is often brought up in discussions of how you just had to be there at the time, man. It’s always seemed to me like the punk-reggae connection has been slightly overstated in retrospect; yes, bands from the two genres toured together, and yes there was some mutual admiration (John Lydon was well into his reggae, while the Wailers sung ‘Punky Reggae Party’), but the only band I can think of from the time who really musically synthesised the two was The Clash. And let’s be honest, some of The Clash’s attempts at reggae were pretty ropey. ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘The Guns of Brixton’ are bloody brilliant, but ‘Revolution Rock’ really isn’t.
Anyway, I mean that punk/reggae bands who were around in the late ‘70s didn’t really musically mix styles, because since then the idea that punk and reggae are linked has become a kind of article of faith, and so they have become linked – on the punk side at least; not many dancehall deejays toasted over versions of Exploited singles. This lead to unlikely combinations, such as the uniquely British subgenre of Two Tone, and the amazing Bad Brains from Washington DC, a Rasta funk-turned-punk band who occasionally stopped playing light-speed hardcore punk to play regressive and fairly unimaginative reggae. Such fusions are nearly always slightly retrograde, if not nostalgic: Two Tone was, to begin with, largely based around appropriation of decade-old Jamaican records, although at least Two Tone bands knew there was more to Jamaican music than roots reggae and slightly expanded the mainstream awareness of ska. Bad Brains meanwhile were playing songs with titles like ‘I Love I Jah’ just as roots reggae was on its way out. The ‘punks should like reggae’ orthodoxy perhaps reaches its apogee in the US punk band Rancid, who take The Clash as their model for everything and so, on an album released in 1994, sang about how much they loved reggae and proved it by namechecking Desmond Dekker, who’d had his biggest hits more than 20 years earlier. No Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton or Bounty Killer for them!
To try to stem a flood of hate-filled comments from tr00 punx, I should say I do have a fondness for Rancid, despite all their flaws; I like The Specials, although most Two Tone music I’ve heard is annoyingly cheery and – sorry to sound like a genre snob – less enjoyable than real ska; Bad Brains are (mostly) awesome, and so are The Clash. My point is, though, that punk is largely a musically conservative genre, the way people think about punk is largely conservative (with a small ‘c’, punx, don’t worry!), and both of these have been responsible for freezing (a particular version of) reggae in non-reggae fans’ minds – which means that we tend to think about it in terms of rock music, not world music.
The thing is, this freezing of what ‘reggae’ means – what reggae sounded like in the ‘70s – in people’s minds is particularly odd in Britain, which is easily reggae’s second home after Jamaica. The history of British reggae is a story of how the music of immigrants more or less developed into its own genre in a new country, much like British Asian music. While British reggae has more or less followed the same trajectory as Jamaican reggae, from roots reggae to ragga deejays to a revival of ‘consciousness’, there have been British innovations, like the subgenre of lovers’ rock and the persistent interest in ‘steppers’ songs, roots and thunderously loud dub while these subgenres were out of fashion in Jamaica.
Classic lovers’ rock from the ’90s
These differences mean that UK reggae has provided something like an alternative history of reggae, a different way in which the genre could have developed after roots reggae faded from popularity in Jamaica. Moreover, reggae in the UK has hugely influenced the growth of other genres of specifically British dance music like jungle, drum’n’bass, UK garage, grime and dubstep. The rise and fall of these genres in the mainstream, along with the large populations of Jamaican descent in Britain, have meant that mainstream awareness of reggae in Britain has been sustained. As it is now, reggae remains, much like British Asian music (or heavy metal or punk, I suppose), at a tangent to the mainstream, rarely heard in the mainstream media but able to attract thousands of fans to big gigs or festivals. I’m sure that if you walk through certain parts of the West Midlands or London you’re still more likely to hear reggae than any other type of music.
There is a definite claim then that reggae is a firmly British style of music, whose development has roots in Britain almost as much as in Jamaica. How, then, can we think of it as ‘world music’ when it’s completely ‘normal’ and intrinsically British? Well, for exactly the reasons I argued in Part I. The Britishness of reggae doesn’t change anything about why we could think of it as world music. It still has its origins outside Euro-American pop/rock, whether or not subsequent developments has meant there’s some crossover. And the idea that just because something is British we shouldn’t include it in ‘world music’ is silly, unless we’re going to make some absolute, objective scale of what is ‘foreign’ and what isn’t. The folk music of the British Isles is ‘world’, bhangra and the ‘Asian Overground’ are ‘world’ and so is reggae.
I’ve probably gone on long enough for now. I wanted to talk about the ways in which we think about certain other types of music, to compare them to the way we think about reggae, but maybe I’ll save that for another time. Part III coming up later then, but for now, here’s more proof that there’s far, far more to British reggae than UB40 and Aswad – the best hymn to veganism I know of:
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