The history of Jamaica as told through music

Reggae, a cultural history

Though it’s easy to frame great moments in music history as revolutionary, they are usually the culmination of decades of change. So, while it is easy to see the great reggae wave that emerged from Jamaica in the late ‘60s as a seminal moment in musical history, which it certainly was, it was also part of an ocean of cultural change that has continued to rise and alter the musical landscape.

For Jamaica, as with many other nations, the Second World War was a watershed. The veneer of the British Empire, already cracking by 1939, had been shattered by the war and waves of decolonisation followed fast on the heels of the Axis Powers’ surrender. Jamaica were among those nations who began clamouring for independence in 1945; a campaign which would bear fruit 17 years later with independence granted in 1962.

Music played a massive role in shaping Jamaican culture over this 17 year period, and beyond, with the traditional mento style acting as the bedrock for this transformation.

Like most of the Caribbean islands, Jamaica’s modern history was shaped by slavery. Occupied by the Spanish in 1494, the lack of gold meant the island was of little economic consequence. Though the Spanish used native, and later African, slaves to work the land these numbers remained relatively low and the island was never of much consequence to the Iberian empire awash in American bullion.

This lack of interest and investment made Jamaica a tempting target for the invading English; who conquered the island in 1655 after an unsuccessful campaign against the neighbouring Hispaniola. This change of ownership was of significant consequence for later Jamaican populations and culture.

First England began to ship copious numbers of indentured Irish to the remote island, so much so that they made up two-thirds of the European population in the 17th century. These numbers alone weren’t enough to work the land, however, and, after securing peace with Spain in 1670, England brought in thousands of African slaves; who could better survive the Caribbean's tropical climate and diseases.

These slaves, mostly captured from West Africa, brought with them their religions, superstitions, traditions, and music. The indentured Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English did likewise and, as in other American colonies, a unique creole culture emerged in Jamaica as these people mixed together.

The melting pot wasn’t incredibly diverse, however, thanks to segregation policies and racism. Yet even as the ruling class subjugated and isolated the African slaves they injected their communities with European culture.

Many plantations used slaves to provide entertainment and those with musical ability could find themselves encouraged to play the latest in musical trends from Mother England. This was a much better fate than what waited out in the sugar fields and refineries. This music travelled home with its players and, over time, the two musics came together to form the unique Jamaican sound, mento.

In the wake of the Second World War mento came to the fore as Jamaica underwent a cultural revival that fueled, and was in turn fueled by, its move toward independence. One of the biggest drivers of this independence movement was the pan-Africanism that stretched to the early 20th century and figures like Marcus Garvey.

Part of a wider global trend of cultural nationalism, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association “to do the utmost to work for the general uplift of the people of African ancestry of the world”. Much like the Finnish, Irish, and Slavic cultural revivals, this movement helped to promote and solidify a Jamaican nationality based around its African heritage.

Mento was one of the great beneficiaries of this movement and its fortunes rose with those of Jamaican independence. By the end of the 1940s mento had become popular for dances and parties across the island. This popularity was mirrored in the rise of other Afrocentric musical styles like rhythm and blues and calypso, so much so that the styles began to merge together, along with jazz, in the 1950s.

This gave rise to new forms of music like ska and rocksteady, which similarly emphasised the drums and bass. Though relatively popular, these styles wouldn’t hit the cultural heights of their successor, reggae; but then these styles didn’t enjoy the support of a religious movement.

The coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 kicked off a new religious movement in Jamaica when some missionaries declared him to be the Second Coming of Christ. This Rastafarianism brought together the religiosity and Afrocentrism of Garvey and other pan-Africans and welded the two firmly together. Yet, as a new religion, Rastafarianism often clashed with the dominant Protestant sects of Jamaica and remained unpopular for most of its history.

This changed with the emergence of reggae and Bob Marley and the Wailers.

A new variation of mento, reggae differed from its precursors, ska and rocksteady, by aligning itself closely with the funk emerging from the southern USA. This difference didn’t stop reggae from capitalising on the popularity of these older styles, though, which allowed it to reach a wide audience. Yet the most important element to reggae’s success was its timing.

Arriving toward the end of the 1960s, reggae emerged in a world awash in the great countercultural wave that was pushing back against tradition and authority. This gave reggae a great boost in the American and British music scenes where young audiences embraced the pan-Africanism and Rastafarianism of Bob Marley and others. Reggae would peak over the next decade or so and influence the likes of the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Paul Simon.

The close links between Jamaica and the UK meant the reggae wave would crash hardest on British shores.

The British Nationality Act of 1948 extended citizenship rights to the populations of the Commonwealth. This allowed for easy migration from the West Indies to Britain and Caribbean neighbourhoods soon popped up around the country. These migrants, like their enslaved ancestors, brought with them their culture, traditions, and music; which flourished in their new homeland.

New distinct British hybrids of Carribean music quickly emerged. Blending the drum and bass of ska and reggae with the dancehall rock and roll, and fueled by blazing anti-establishment sentiment, British punk was born and a whole new epoch of music began; though if you look closely you can see its roots stretch back for centuries.

Though lacking the drum and bass focus of mento, ska, or reggae, Redemption Song is one of the most most culturally important tracks to emerge from the shores of Jamaica. Composed by Bob Marley in the final years of his life, this often covered track reflected on the harsh history of the Caribbean while acting as a muted anthem for the Pan-African movement. A year after releasing Redemption Song Marley died and reggae’s popularity began to wain.

Yet reggae, like the styles that went before it, would live on in the bedrock of the music that emerged from Jamaica and elsewhere. The history and culture of Jamaica continues to be felt in the ripples its music makes.

Join Patrick this Sunday at 7pm as he talks with a panel about the life, music, and career of that great Jamaican, Bob Marley, and how he helped to change the world.