SKA, ROCK STEADY & REGGAE - A BRIEF HISTORY
From Time Before
Music has always been an important factor in the lives of Jamaicans and
other West Indians. Jamaican music comes from an African foundation, influenced
by the music of Europe, especially England & France. The great-great
grandparent of Reggae is mento, a loose-sounding folk music, sometimes confused
with calypso, a Trinidad-born music. Mento's lyrical food is topical issues.
By the 1950s Jamaican youth were more interested in listening to American pop
music, popularized by radio and sound systems - portable dance machines that
were to change the face of Jamaican music.
The Blazing Fire
Ska combines the catchy backbeat of New Orleans- style R&B;and
mento. Many early ska songs were covers of popular American songs. Typically
ska drums stress beats 2 & 4 over a walking quarter-note bass, with the
guitar stiking the offbeats in a syncopated mento style. Ska's tempo was
especially appealing to the restless Jamaican youth, and was always the music
of the poor.
Some reggae historians identify the R & B song that fathered the ska
beat as "No More Doggin'" (1952) by Roscoe Gordon, a Memphis piano
player. The "one and two and three and four" beat had been around
since the 40s, and was used by Rhythm & Blues artists like Louis Jordan &
Big Joe Turner.
Theophilus Beckford is considered by many to have recorded
the first ska tune, "Easy Snapping", in 1959. The
recording was produced by Lloyd "Matador" Daley, and arranged by
Cluet Johnson AKA "Clue J" was important to the
development of Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's desire in the late 50s to
establish a distinctive Jamaican musical sound. Clue J's distinctive stage
greeting - skavoovie, lead some to define this as the root of the term Ska.
Sir Lord Comic's "The Great Wuga Wuga" (1967
WIRL(JA)), a musical advertisement for his sound system, was one of the last
great Ska tunes.
The Skatalites, who truly defined the various ska-era styles,
were ubiquitous in the mid-60s, but only held together for about 14 months
(1964-65). The original Skatalites were jazzmen in the 40s & 50s, bringing
the influence of big-band, bebop & the Blue Note sound to the new Jamaican
dance sound. Reforming in the 80s they continue to excite audiences worldwide.
When ska began its change into the more sophisticated-sounding
Rock Steady during the mid-60s singers came into their own.
While the tempo remained about the same Rock Steady carried a relaxed rhythmic
In Rock Steady the guitar only strums on beats 2 & 4, and the bass guitar
emphasizes beats 1 & 3.
Drums are less prominent in Rock Steady as their rhythmic role was being
taken over by the bass guitar. Drums provided accents, or were inaudible. Less
predominant horns and less-rigid beat offered more vocal possibilities. Rock
Steady was perfect for romantic group vocals.
Say What You're Saying
By 1969 the new, enduring sound of Reggae had established
itself. Reggae is closer to the chanting, meditative Nyabinghi sound, and
lends itself to musical meditiation. The Rock Steady years brought the bass to
prominence. The strength of the booming bass line continues in Reggae.
Jamaicans have always been fond of the bass sound, as seen in mento music.
Reggae takes it to higher heights. It is the "riddim" that makes the
song, and results in the versions.
Like most popular music of the western world, Reggae is played in 4/4 time
- 4 beats to a bar of 4. The strongly felt beats, or downbeats, are beats 2 &
4, opposite to most pop music. Some claim that this has made Reggae's
acceptance difficult in North America (leaden 1 & 3 feet?)!
The One Drop style is defined by the drumming pattern. With
the expectation of the bass drum hitting on beats 1 & 3, the "one"
is "drop"ped. There's much more to it though. The snare may
emphasize the 3rd beat. The bass may emphasize beat 1 with a strong note, but
also often misses the first beat too. The high hat may emphasize the 1st beat.
By this definition, Ska must be considered the original "one drop"
Rockers is a style of Reggae beat that originated in the
mid-70s. Unlike the earlier "one drop" style which has the bass drum
play on the 3rd beat of every measure, in a rockers beat the bass drum plays on
all four beats of the measure, like the bass drum in a disco beat. In fact,
this beat probably influenced the sound of disco music.
One drop bass drum pattern: 1 2 3 4
Rockers bass drum pattern: 1 2 3 4
^ ^ ^ ^
The term Rockers came to be a generic term for 70s
reggae, partly due to the emphatic nature of the term.
Liveth and Reigneth
Rastafari has always been strongly linked to Reggae, making the music
important socio-politically as well as culturally.
Jamaican music itself has changed considerably over the past 35 or so
years. Dub music is the result of the engineer restructuring the sound on the
mixing board. Lovers rock, deejays, dub poetry all come from the root.
Dancehall and Jungle music are the latest trends in this everchanging Jamaican
sound. The emigration of Jamaicans and other West Indies to Europe and North
America has both spread the vibe and blended other musical ideas to Reggae. All
in all, Reggae has exerted an international impact remarkable for such a small
nation - the loudest island in the world.
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