Jamaica’s original rural folk music, called mento, is the grandfather of reggae music and had significant influences on the formation of that genre. Jamaica’s “country music” was inspired by African and European music as well as by American jazz and featured acoustic guitars, banjos, bamboo saxes, hand drums and marimbula (large thumb pianos) also called rhumba boxes, which were large enough to sit on and play. There were also a variety of hand percussion instruments like maracas. Mento’s vocals had a distinctly African sound and the lyrics were almost always humorous and happy. Everywhere people gathered you could find a mento band and there were many mento and calypso competitions throughout the island. Mento also gave birth to Jamaica’s recording industry in the 1950s when it first became available on 78 RPM records. Mento is still around today.
Before World War II, calypso from Trinidad and Tobago had made its way into Jamaica’s music and, although quite different, the two were often confused. Jamaica’s own calypso artists performed alongside its mento artists throughout the island, for locals and tourists alike. A calypso craze swept the U.S. and U.K. in the late 1950s as Harry Belafonte came onto the scene. Many of his songs were actually mento but they were more often described as calypso.
After the war, transistor radios and jukeboxes had become widely available and Jamaicans were able to hear music from the southern U.S., particularly jazz and rhythm and blues from some of the greats like Fats Domino and Jelly Roll Morton, and records flooded into the island.
And then, in the early 1960s, came American R&B. With a faster and far more danceable tempo, the genre caught on quickly in Jamaica. Attempting to copy this sound with local artists, Jamaicans added their own unique twists, blending in elements of their Caribbean heritage, fusing it with mento and calypso and jazz, to create a unique genre heavily driven by drums and bass and accented with rhythms on the off-beat, or the “upstroke”. This purely Jamaican genre dominated the Jamaican music scene at the time and was known as … ska.
Coinciding with the festive mood in the air when Jamaica won its independence from the U.K. in 1962, ska had a type of 12-bar rhythm and blues framework; the guitar accented the second and fourth beats in the bar, essentially flipping the R&B shuffle beat, and gave rise to this new sound.
Because Jamaica didn’t ratify the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works until 1994, Jamaican musicians often created instrumental ska versions of songs by popular American and British artists; copyright infringement was not an issue! The Skatalites re-made Motown hits, surf music and even the Beatles in their own style. The Wailers’ first single Simmer Down was a ska smash in Jamaica in late 1963/early 1964 but they also covered And I Love Her by the Beatles and Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.
Although the sound system concept had taken root in Jamaica in the mid 1950s, ska led to its explosion in popularity and it became a major, uniquely Jamaican, industry that continues to thrive today. Enterprising DJs with U.S. sources for the latest records would load up pickup trucks with a generator, turntables, and huge speakers, and drive around the island blaring out the latest hits. Essentially these sound systems were like loud mobile discos! DJs charged admission and sold food and alcohol, enabling them to profit in Jamaican’s unstable economy. Thousands would sometimes gather and sound systems became big business. Amidst fierce competition, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Duke Reid surfaced as two of the star DJs of the day. Reliant on a steady source of new music, these two superstars began to produce their own records, ultimately becoming Studio One (Dodd) and Treasure Isle (Reid).
Other important ska producers were Prince Buster, whose Blue Beat label records inspired many Jamaican ska (and later reggae) artists, and Edward Seaga, who owned and operated the West Indies Records Limited (WIRL) in the 1960s but went on to become Prime Minister of Jamaica and leader of the Jamaican Labour Party in the 1980s.
As Jamaicans emigrated in large numbers to the U.K., the sound system culture followed and became firmly entrenched there. Without the efforts of a white Anglo-Jamaican named Chris Blackwell, the rest of the world might not have come to know this Jamaican brand of music. Blackwell, a record distributor, moved his label to the U.K. in 1962 and began releasing records there on various labels, including the Island label. His early artists included the Skatalites, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. Blackwell’s international breakthrough came in 1964 when his artist Millie Small hit the U.S. airwaves with My Boy Lollipop.
Back in Jamaica, as American R&B and soul music became slower and smoother in the mid-1960s, ska changed its sound and evolved into… rocksteady.
Songs that described dances were very popular now in the U.S. and U.K, as well as Jamaica. In the U.S., we had The Twist, The Locomotion, The Hanky Panky and The Mashed Potato. One popular dance-song in Jamaica was The Rock Steady by Alton Ellis. The name for this entire genre may have been based on that song title.
The only noteworthy difference between ska and rocksteady was the tempo. Both styles had the famous Jamaican rhythm guitar complemented by drums, bass, horns, vocals and a groove that kept you on your feet moving, but the drum and bass are played at a slower, more relaxed, pace and the rhythm is more syncopated.
Rocksteady arose at a time when Jamaica’s poverty-stricken youths had become disillusioned about their futures after Jamaica gained independence from Britain. Turning into delinquents, these unruly youths became known as “rude boys”. Rocksteady’s themes mainly dealt with love and the rude boy culture, and had catchy dance moves which were far more energetic than the earlier ska dance moves. Many bass lines originally created for rocksteady songs continue to be used in today’s Jamaican music.
As a musical style, rocksteady was short-lived, and existed for only about two years. Some of the more well-known rocksteady artists were Alton Ellis, Justin Hinds and the Dominos, Derrick Morgan, The Gaylads, The Kingstonians, Delroy Wilson, Bob Andy, Ken Boothe, The Maytals and The Paragons.
Continuing to evolve, Jamaica’s musical tempo slowed, bass patterns became more complex, and the piano gave way to the electric organ, giving birth to… reggae, which eventually became the most popular music genre in the world!