Its distinctive beat gives it away. There is nothing in the world that sounds like reggae music. The expected chops and the back beat by the rhythm guitar and the distinctive sound of the bass drum marks reggae as a genre by its own right. Reggae music originated from several other Jamaican music types just as great as it is like ska, rocksteady, RandB, Jazz, Calypso, and Mento.
Jamaican music is as rich as its history. The soul of each and every Jamaican song traces its roots to the black people herded onto ships, clinging to their most priceless possessions–clothing, food, and for many, their drums. These drums that traveled as far as their owners have are what brought the world priceless gifts and that are the gifts of music. The slaves used their music to fill-up their lives and sang about everything. They have songs of praise, songs of love, songs of loneliness, and songs of inspiration. It is not surprising therefore, that reggae music has been used by the likes of Bob Marley and The Wailers to promote certain political issues like poverty and injustice.
From the characteristic drumbeats, Jamaican folk music has embraced innovation and has added a whole range of flavor to their indigenous music. Combining the drumbeats to a lot of different musical instruments, like the rhythm guitar, and the trumpet, produced ska, rocksteady and eventually reggae.
Reggae music swooped Jamaica just when it was about to proclaim its independence and the masses were clamoring for a beat, a sound that could articulate their emotions. Reggae rose up to the challenge and succeeded. A few years later, when the assurance of an improved quality of life and the promise of a bright tomorrow for a liberated nation came up empty reggae was still being played. But it started to serve a much higher purpose than entertainment. For the first time in its history, roots reggae took on its rebellious and defiant form. Reggae music told of stories of suffering in the shanties of Trenchtown, it told of stories of violence and corruption but most of all it told the people of Jamaica to get up and stand up for their rights.
As the country grew from bad to worse, the people started to look for a moral guidance that would give sense to the life of wretchedness they were living in. Rastafarianism answered the call of a people desperately seeking an alternative leader with convincing values of love and peace. The Rastafarian movement boomed, gained a huge following in Jamaica and reggae was the movement’s music. Eventually, roots reggae would be identified with Rastafarianism and vice versa. Dreadlocks, khakis, and kaftans became the symbol of reggae attitude.
Just when it seems that the evolution of reggae has gone through so much, it began to take on another controversial form with the arrival of dancehall reggae. This new type of reggae music is so called because its raunchy lyrics only allowed it to be played in dancehalls. Dancehall reggae is a form of rebellion against roots reggae because many artists believe that reggae music has gone too mainstream that it catered more to the demands of the audience than to reggae’s real spirit. Infused with a lot of techno beats and computer generated riffs, dancehall departed from old school reggae music’s slow and lulling beat and enveloped a more upbeat and fast rhythm.
And then there was ragga. Ragga music could be gangsta rap’s ancestor as it boldly came out with songs on violence, guns, and gangs. Many ragga songs were evidently masochistic with harsh lyrics demeaning women and praising male supremacy.
Over the course of history, ragga’s forerunners saw reason and tamed down their music. A couple prominent ragga figures went back to embrace Rastafarianism and sought a live of uprightness and peace.
Reggae music has come and changed in so many ways over the years. Yet it still makes the same sound as it did several decades ago. Reggae still sings the songs that make hearts beat faster, songs that make the feet dance harder, and songs that reflect the rhythm of the soul.