In the late 1960s, Jamaica was blessed with a variety of talented musicians and singers who experimented with and blended different beats of music and recorded their musical renditions at local recording studios like Dynamic Sounds and Treasure Isle.
So, while rocksteady, with its smooth rhythmic beat and melodious lyrics and sound, took over from the more pulsating and energetic sound of ska in 1967, by 1969 another new energetic beat was already replaying the rocksteady genre. The new beat would become the phenomenal genre of reggae.
There is no definitive account of where the name reggae originated from. One account is that it emerged from a 1968 single, “Do the Reggay” by the group Toots and the Maytals. Another account claims the late reggae icon Bob Marley said the word reggae came from a Spanish term for “the king’s music.” This could have some accuracy as in Latin the word regi means “to the king.”
Whatever the source of the name, the fact is that within a short time the new genre reggae became king on Jamaica’s musical scene.
Reggae had a distinctive sound, heavy on the beat of the guitar and piano (or keyboard), and a collaboration of the traditional Jamaican musical genres of mento, ska, and American jazz and rhythm and blues.
Like its predecessor, ska, reggae when played immediately summoned people to the dance floor. In Jamaica, reggae had a similar effect on the local population as calypso had on the population of Trinidad.
And if one wasn’t dancing to reggae, the new genre, like calypso, evoked great satisfaction as the lyrics in several reggae songs performed by artists like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, the Third World Band, and others, were strong social commentaries that served to motivate people who were then marginalized, giving hope for their upward social mobility.
Somehow, reggae attracted singers, men and women, who were affiliated, or yearned to be affiliated to the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica, which created a societal conundrum in the late 1960s to early 1970s, as some uptown Jamaicans tended to turn up their noses, not so much at the music, but the artists rendering the sound, but the music grew to so much in popularity that the societal biases was eventually removed.
There is little doubt that the music and lyrics of reggae orchestrated change in the Jamaican society in the 1970s—something quickly identified by the emerging populist leaders like Michael Manley and Edward Seaga in the 1970s. Manley came to power in 1972, riding on the rhythm of a popular reggae hit, “Better Must Come” by Delroy Wilson, which he chose as the People National Party’s campaign song, and for later campaigns, the hit, “My Leader Born Ya” boasting his Jamaican roots compared to his rival Seaga’s U.S. birth. Also, in the mid-1970s, when political violence threatened to destabilize the country, Manley turned to reggae for a solution and sought Bob Marley and several other reggae artists to perform in the legendary Peace Concert held at the National Stadium in Kingston.
And, Seaga who had a keen understanding of Jamaican music and musicians, and the impact of the music on the lives of impoverished Jamaicans, used reggae and other forms of traditional Jamaican music to bind him and his politics to the Jamaican working class.
Although reggae has had great singers like Marley, Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Gregory Issacs, Dennis Brown, among others, it also produced great musicians. These included bass guitarists like Carlton Barrett from Bob Marley and the Wailers, Lloyd Brevett from The Skatalites, Lloyd Knibb from The Skatalites, Winston Grennan, Sly Dunbar, Anthony “Benbow” Creary from The Upsetters, and from Ritchie Daley of Third World. Several reggae sounds also featured organ shuffle sound mastered by keyboard artists like Jackie Mittoo and Winston Wright.
Emergence in Jamaica
Reggae began to take over from ska in the late 1960s with hits like Larry And Alvin’s “Nanny Goat.” the Beltones’ “No More Heartaches,” and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “People Funny Bwoy.” But, the music had also spread overseas with the legendary English group The Beatles recording the hit “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” with a distinct reggae beat.
The Wailers, with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, grew in popularity, and emerged from the rocksteady era in association with Lee Perry’s studio artistry with early reggae hits like “Duppy Conqueror” and “Small Axe.” The Wailers remained strong on the Jamaican reggae scene and in collaboration with Englishman Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, broke reggae firmly on the international scene with the first reggae album “Catch A Fire” in 1972. The Wailers went on to release more great hits like “Put it On,” “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot The Sheriff,” which was also covered by British singer Eric Clapton. In 1974 the group produced another classic album, Natty Dread, released in 1975, featuring hits like “Talking Blues,” “No Woman, No Cry” and “Rebel Music.”
The group split in 1975, with Tosh going solo, and became known as Bob Marley and the Wailers, with the background harmony provided by the female trio—The I-Threes (Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths).
Tosh became a legend in his own night with hits like “Buckingham Palace,” “Legalize It” and “Momma Africa,” while Marley rose to iconic reggae status with hit after hit including, “Crazy Baldhead,” “Who The Cap Fit,” “War,” “One Love,” “Redemption Song,” “Exodus,” and later shortly before his death in 1981, reggae love songs like “Waiting in Vain,” and “Is This Love.”
There are too many outstanding reggae artists to include in this limited space, but special mention must be made of the Third World Band that emerged in the mid-1970s with a distinctive, very professional reggae sound produced by a talented group including, Ritchie Daley, Steven “Cat” Coore, Michael “Ibo” Cooper, Irvin “Carrot: Jarett, Willie Stewart (renowned drummer now stationed in South Florida), and vocalist Bunny Rugs. The groups many hits like, “Now That We’ve Found Love,” “96 Degrees In The Shade,” and “Try Jah Love” were intensely popular in Jamaica and globally. The band is still playing currently.
One of the reasons for the lasting popularity of the genre is its influence internationally. Several international artists had Reggae hits. These artists included First Three Dog Night’s cover of the Maytones’ hit “Black and White in” 1972; Johnny Nash’s hit, “I Can See Clearly Now” and Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” also in 1972.
Reggae’s international influence would spread in 1973 onwards with the movie “The Harder They Come” starring Jamaican singer turned actor Jimmy Cliff. The movie was shown in theaters around the world, introducing Jamaican culture, specifically reggae.
Over the years, reggae has grown in popularity in countries like Japan, England, Germany, the U.S., and several African countries, and spawned a hybrid sound called reggaeton with the Latin beat in Latin America.
A powerful indication of the international influence of reggae was that in 1985 the Grammy Awards introduced the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album category.
In February 2008, then-Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding sanctioned February as Reggae Month in Jamaica, and in February 2008 the Recording Industry Association of Jamaica also staged its first Reggae Academy Awards.
In November 2018, remarkably, the genre was added to the UNESCO‘s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, recognizing that reggae’s “contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love, and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual.”