What Is Reggae Music?

Reggae music is a Jamaican musical genre with roots in the several Caribbean music and African music forms, as well as the rhythm and blues genre of American music. Particularly, reggae music evolved from the Jamaican ska music genre, which first gained momentum between 1959 and 1961. By the mid- to late-1960’s, reggae musicians were developing their own type of music.

Ska Music

Ska music combined jazz-influenced horns, a walking bass line and offbeat piano or guitar rhythms. Ska, of course, was played at a much faster pace than reggae. This music became quite popular in Jamaica in the early Sixties, and had gained popularity in England among the “mod” scene by 1964. By the mid-Sixties, ska musicians were slowing down their rhythms and producing the type of music now known as rocksteady. By 1968, though, Jamaican musicians were slowing down their music even slower, producing the distinctive rhythms which came to be known as reggae music.

Early Reggae Music

The first reggae music recordings were by acts like The Beltones or Larry Marshall, while the reggae was first noticed by American audiences due to the 1968 hit by Johnny Nash, “Hold Me Tight”. No doubt helping the notoriety of reggae music in America (at least among those “hip” to the beat) was the Beatles’ hit, “Ob-la-Di, Ob-La-Da”, also released in 1968, which incorporated a reggae beat.

The real crossover phenomenon for reggae music was the band known as The Wailers, named after Bunny Wailer. Including such future reggae legends as Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, the Wailers were founded in 1963 and would by the end of the decade become the face of reggae music to the international music scene. Other names important in the early days of reggae music (or helping it gain notoriety and acceptance worldwide) were Desmond Dekker, Jackie Mittoo, Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff (acted in the first famous reggae movie), as well as producers like King Tubby, Coxsone Dodd and Lee “Scratch” Perry.

What Is Reggae Music About?

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Reggae music tackles themes that many other genres of music have tackled, though it does so in a distinctive fashion. Common themes involve such myriad topics as religion and poverty, peace and injustice, and standard popular music fare like love, relationships and sexuality. Reggae music also focused on social issues and politics, often rallying support and concerning officials with the activism of its most famous artists. Because reggae music was distinctively Jamaican, Reggae music (much like calypso music in Trinidad & Tobago) discussed the many political and social concerns of Jamaicans living in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Also, reggae music has come to be identified with the Rastafari movement. Rastafarianism is a religious movement which combines reverence for the late-Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, with the spiritual use of cannabis (marijuana) to reject the teachings of western society and orient towards a more Afrocentric outlook towards social issues and politics. A Rastarafian view Haile Selassie, the only black monarch in Africa in the middle of the 20th century, as an incarnation of “Jah Rastafari”, sometimes known as “Jah” or “Ras Tafari”, a divine being, member of the Holy Trinity and Biblical messiah. They believe that Jesus was guided by Jah, but his teachings were corrupted by “Babylon”.

At the same time, one can overemphasize the connection between reggae music and the Rastafari movement, because many reggae songs are about light-hearted and worldly subjects, and reggae music has had 40 years of evolution to take on many different sub-genres: reggaeton, dancehall, rockers, lovers rock, dub and roots reggae — to name a few.

What Is Reggae Music Today?

Today, reggae music is what it always was. The most distinctive aspect of reggae tunes is the offbeat rhythms played by guitar over repetitive bass riffs and regular chords. When you hear these distinctive sounds, you know you’re hearing reggae music. The rest is details, whether it be the subjects the reggae song discusses or the homeland the musician is native to. Many non-Jamaican reggae bands have found success, though reggae is still evocative of Jamaica, ganga and dreadlocks.