No matter how great the musician, music is always the expression of an entire culture, of a moment in history, of a particular place in time. The genius of a particular musician, the synergy of a particular group - these are both essential to the success or failure of a particular group. But that success or failure is never intrinsic to a single song, to a single album. Music that succeeds - both in its own time and later - does so because it has the ability to express something important about that moment in time. Reggae has been able to provide just such an expression of the beliefs of a particular people at a moment in history for the last two years - and it has been able to do so because of its ability to change with larger political and cultural changes. This paper examines the ways in which Jamaican music - and especially reggae - has changed since the 1970s to the present using a reader response model to understand the importance of these changes.
It is difficult for us to remember - because reggae and the influence of reggae is now so nearly ubiquitous - that as a distinct style is arose only in the late 1960s and did not receive any substantial notice outside of Jamaica until the 1970s. From the very beginning as Bradley (2001) argues in his history of Jamaican music, it was considered by both performers and audiences as the voice of the oppressed. This was based both on the fact that so many of the musicians and fans were minorities as well as on the position of Jamaica as a reminder of the injustices of the colonized world. The 1960s were the decade that saw an irrevocable end to the era of colonialization and reggae in many ways became the voice of that moment in history when peoples in Africa and the Caribbean became their own masters for the first time in generations.
The History of Jamaican Music
Reggae had its roots - although there is some disagreement on this issue - in ska, which was an earlier and in many ways (at least aesthetically) a similar form of music (although it was less political and more purely popular. Reggae is defined by its heavy four-beat rhythm, which is driven in different measures (depending on the artist concerned) by two percussion instruments - drums and a corrugated stick rubbed against a plain stick called the scraper - and two string instruments, the bass guitar and the electric guitar. (This rhythm, based on the drum and bass only, would spin off and become dub, a purely instrumental form.)
As Bradley (2001) notes, reggae may sound "black" to white listeners, but it incorporated elements of "white" music and "white" culture and its ability to comment on the dominant culture was one of the key elements that made it a music of the disenfranchised. The "chunking" of the guitar that marks the ends of measures in reggae is called skengay and is supposed to represent the sound of ricocheting bullets that were bringing down so many young men in Kingston. In this sense, there is a clear musical and philosophical line from reggae to gangsta rock - a mourning of those lost that is mostly disguised by a celebration of a subculture of violence.
Although reggae has its roots in ska, it is musically distinctly different - much slower, more mournful and more fatalistic. Ska was the music of liberation in Jamaica, the fast-beat, upbeat music of the independence of the island from Britain in 1962. That music - the style known as rock steady - brought about the rise of a generation of new stars such as the Heptones and Alton Ellis.
But as the bright promises of independence began to fade, the youth of Jamaica became increasingly politicized and the music that they created and listened to also became increasingly political. The late sixties and early seventies saw the rise of the greatest of all reggae stars, Bob Marley, along with a number of other singers and groups that are now rarely listened to -- Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff, for example.
Marley brought reggae to the rest of the world (although not without help) but at home he remained very the voice of Jamaica:
Jamaican broadcaster Jeremy Verity said once: "The fact that Bob Marley was what he was and that he was a Rastafarian and that he wore the locks and that he lived a certain way right up to his death, and was at the same time a great musician and artist
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It validates for Jamaicans their belief that they could be something good, that after 450 years of being told you are nothing, that you are not important, you are the end of the earth, for Jamaicans the fact that Bob Marley made it big in the outside world is a validation." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/1323905.stm).
To the extent that a single event marked the international recognition of reggae, the 1972 movie The Harder They Come might be said to be that instigation, as the movie and its reggae soundtrack spread the message of reggae - the spirit of people long pushed aside by fate who refuse to admit that they are beaten - internationally.
This description of the re-release of the movie last year captures its cultural importance:
The movie starring Jimmy Cliff, was a cult hit when it was released 30 years ago. But along with Bob Marley, the film and its soundtrack helped introduce reggae music to America and the rest of the world. Ashley Kahn reports on the film's continuing influence.
Director Perry Henzell's soundtrack "captured reggae at the moment it entered its golden age at the start of the '70s -- with a variety of styles, rhythms and exotic lyrics," Kahn says. It included songs by Cliff, The Maytals, The Slickers and others -- soulful ballads, upbeat rockers and even songs that quoted scripture and preached peace.
The Harder They Come was the primer for reggae music and the Jamaican experience," Kahn says. It "exposed life in the ghetto of Trenchtown and in the dancehalls of Kingston. It showed how to dance to reggae and when to bring your foot down..." (http://www.npr.org/display_pages/features/feature_1474004.html).
Although it might seem from our current vantage point that there has always been a connection between reggae and Rastafarianism, this connection actually came about through the work of a number of groups such as Big Youth and Black Uhuru who pushed the messages of both reggae and the Rastafarian movement, a pan-Africanist movement which urged the children of the African diaspora to return to the continent of their forebears, creates a divinity of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I (whose birth name was Ras Tafari). The fact that Rastafarianism promotes the use of ganja (marijuana) as a sacrament did much to endear the movement to many reggae fans.
Reggae is clearly influenced by the traditions of African music, and its link to life before the African diaspora (and so before slavery) runs through the music as one of its defining revolutionary elements.
But this celebratory combination of nationalism and commercialism had another powerful element - Africa. Religion, in the form of Pocomania, and the drum music traditions of Burru and Kumina survived transportation to be embraced in Jamaica where Africanism was clung to fiercely and slave revolts were far more commonplace than on any other Caribbean island. Much later, Rastafari's sophisticated drum ensembles would provide a living example of these ancient traditions, while the burgeoning music industry was never slow to absorb those influences (http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/features/reggae/history_intro.shtml).
During the 1970s, reggae spread across Britain and the United States as part of a package of ganja, music, and Rastafarianism. Had the music been unaccompanied by the buzz of the drug culture, it is unlikely that it would have succeeded the way that it did:
By the time Natty Dread, the Wailers' third album, was released late in 1974, it was clear that the image of Marley in particular as a licentious, ganja-smoking "Rasta rebel" was to be a central feature of Island's marketing campaign. The album's sleeve carried an impressionistic and romanticised portrait of Marley which emphasised his locksed hair in a way designed to evoke a sense of eroticism and fantasy in the intended white rock-fan. With the album's release, the key icons of ganja, locks, and Rasta colours became firmly established as the symbols most effective in selling reggae to whites. In accordance with this strategy Catch A Fire was later re-packaged with the cigarette-lighter cover replaced by a full-sized photograph of Marley smoking a large "spliff" of marijuana (http://www.easystar.com/feature2.html).
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that reggae is too "authentic" to have succeeded because of clever (and profitable) marketing - and this itself is one of the…