History of Reggae

To understand reggae music, you really have to understand its evolution. Leading up to Jamaica’s independence from Britain, the country underwent a huge musical revolution. Mostly this was manifested in the delivery of music, which at the time was coming largely from traveling dance halls called “sound systems.” The sound systems were run by disc jockeys called “selectors” who would play a European and African folk dance music fusion called “mento“. Because many the areas of the island were so poor, sound systems were the primary form of entertainment for most people. Selectors started doing something called “toasting,” which was speaking or rapping over the music while it played, which developed into social commentary.

Mento music eventually started incorporating styles from other Caribbean islands as well as New Orleans rhythm’n'blues, shifting the focus of the sound to the bass rather than the guitar. This new music was called “ska” and was where such legendary bands as the Wailers started their musical careers. That eventually developed into “reggae,” a term coined around 1960 to refer to the “ragged” style of music being played.


Reggae started to take root early in Jamaica, drawing on a number of outside influences to develop its sound, marked primarily by the rhythm and blues feel, Caribbean instrumentation, and drumming that mimicked African nyah-bingi drumming, which is meant to sound like a heartbeat. It first gained prominence in the UK in 1967 with the release of Prince Buster’s Al Capone, which started a major dance craze. For the first few years, though, reggae was considered a violent and subversive form of music. It wasn’t until Jimmy Cliff’s Wonderful World, Beautiful People in 1969 that you would see a fusion of reggae as an art form with the hippie message of love and peace, which continues to mark the style today.

A number of great artists came out of these early days, but the status of the genre wasn’t cemented until the 1972 film The Harder They Come, the soundtrack of which found wide radio play and introduced a whole generation to reggae.

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