Reggae music, dancehall and the subculture of violenceSunday, February 21, 2021
It is historic irony that Black History Month and Reggae Month are celebrated in February. Jamaican music can be traced back to mento music, but the importation of the blues in the post-World War II era had a profound influence on the early urban weekend activities in Kingston and St Andrew and other urban centres.
The dance ritual is a celebration of life that has served as an antidote for anomie and alienation. The ritual of dance and music were part and parcel of the South African liberation struggle and it constituted a cultural catharsis in urban Jamaica in the 1950s and beyond.
Work in a pre-industrial or an industrialising society can lead to alienation and, weekend and even during the week dances served as a means of letting off steam and extrapolating joy out of often harsh realities of life.
The sound system was the instrument that furnished the sound and often the place of abode. Duke Reid and Sir Coxsone's Downbeat were the two dominant sound systems. There were other sounds like V-Rocket, Lord Koos, King Edward, Tom's the Great Sebastian, etc. Merritone would emerge at a later date.
Out of Sir Coxsone's Downbeat came Studio One and the pioneering efforts in tapping into the musical creativity of the Jamaican people. Development of the music must pay homage to Vere Johns who began promoting competition among artists in cinema theatres like Palace and Ambassador. At the time many of the artists in this pre-Independence period imitated well-known American vocalists like Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Shirley and Lee, Frankie Lyman, etc.
Laurel Aiken is the first Jamaican artist who rejected imitating established vocalists in America. Aiken made a number of tunes in the 1950s and 1960s that were hits. Many other artists followed like Sang and Harriott, Derrick Morgan, Clancy Eccles, Alton Ellis, Dobbie Dobson, and Boris Gardiner.
That genre of Jamaican music emerged in the pre-Independence period. It contributed much to the Jamaican identity that mattered as the country developed politically and sought independence from Britain.
The early music was heavily influenced by American rhythm and blues that promoters like Duke Reid and Downbeat had purchased in the southern regions of the United States. The blues diet included Smiley Lewis, Gene and Eunice, Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Count Archibald, Rosco Gordon, etc. That love of the blues was superimposed by the musical creativity of the Jamaican vocalists and instrumentalist.
There was an aggregation of Jamaican musicians who emerged initially as Studio One Band. Those musicians later formed the Skatalites. The Skatalites comprised many of the great Jamaican horn blowers, many of whom were products of Alpha Boys' School. The late trombonist Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling, Dizzy Johnny Moore, Lloyd Knibb, the drummer; and Lloyd Brevett, the base player, as well as lead vocalist Doreen Shaffer. Not all were products of Alpha Boys' School. The Skatalites did not last long and, despite their brilliance, many of them struggled to make a living. But the music is immortalised in the albums that they made and their manifold back-up to the artists who were part of the Sir Coxson's Downbeat Studio 1 musical academy.
That early music focused on non-political lyrics and like the blues focused on amorous relationships. That is self-evident in the early music of The Wailers, Alton Ellis, Derrick Morgan and Delroy Wilson.
The music takes a turn based on the increasing influence of the Rastafarian religion. The music of Count Ossie and Mystic Revelations reflected the cultural changes taking place at the grass roots in Jamaican society. Count Ossie's band hailed from the mountains of Eastern Kingston. The band included saxophonist like Brother Gaynair, trumpeter Dizzy Johnny Moore, trombonist Rico Rodriquez, drummers playing the “funde” and Count Ossie featured on the “repeata” drum. The band featured often at dances at Tiverton Road and other venues. Count Ossie and Mystic Revelation's music spotlighted much of the injustices in “Babylon” and reflected a yearning for repatriation. Ras Michael in western Kingston also dramatised drumming and the Rasta critique of Jamaican society.
The artist who had the international impact on reggae music was Robert Nesta Marley. From his early song writings and original rhythms like Simmer Down and I Don't Need Your Love, Marley demonstrated an incredible eye for originality, melody and lyrics. As he rejected conventional wisdom extant in Jamaica, Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh found solace in the protest religion of Rastafari. When Marley came out with the albums Soul Rebel and Soul Revolution, it was evident that he had undergone a religious and cultural transformation.
Marley was determined to increase his visibility and reggae music on the world stage. He was creative enough to fine-tune the music that reggae rhythms became internationally embraced.
Marley's initial albums created a new phase in the history of Jamaican music. Rather than Jamaica absorbing the external impact of contemporary music, Jamaican artistes were forcing the world to embrace the small island's creativity and world consciousness. The music began with the blues that invaded urban life in Jamaica from North America. The tables have turned as Jamaica and reggae music have emerged as a musical genre that has had a wholesome impact on humankind.
Professor Basil 'Bagga' Wilson, a former Kingston College academic star and Manning Cup football player, is retired Provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, USA.
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