By The Landlord
"Every musician tries to blend in some reggae. It's the only music that brings all people together, different races, different religions." – Burning Spear, aka Winston Rodney
"In Jamaica, the music is recorded for the sound system, not the iPod. It's about experiencing music together, with other people. But my favourite band of all time is The Clash. They started out as guys who could barely play three chords. They dabbled in reggae, punk, rap, jazz. They came to a sound that could only be defined as The Clash. It was impossible to say what it was. I admire them for that". – Michael Franti
"Jamaican reggae is the style of music I always reach for when ranting to friends about how you could listen to one style of music exclusively for the rest of your life - it would all be great and varied." – Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead
"I grew up with reggae music." – Youssou N'Dour
"Open your eyes, look within. Are you satisfied with the life you're living? … Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds." – Bob Marley
A tiny island nation with a cultural influence and reach so huge, that for those who have listened to almost any music released since the 1960s, Jamaica has helped make many us who we are today. And it's not just that heavy, steady, bass rhythmic massive thrum, or those staccato, chopped guitar chords or brass section landing on the two and four of four-beat chord and similar syncopated variants. Jamaican music is an attitude, a lifestyle, a way of thinking, a message, a way of being, but also feeling in the body that says relax and feel released.
But music from Jamaica would simply be too massive a topic to make playlists here, so this week, learned readers, we're focusing not not so much on that music, but its influence, and we're looking for examples not from Jamaica itself, but of how its seed has spread far and wide into other genres across the world from pop to dance music to hip hop, punk to new wave, African music to jazz and more. And for your entertainment, we're going to define and highlight three core genres from the 1960s that are the cause of that inspiration.
And in turn, I'd like to acknowledge a huge debt to our wonderful regular Uncleben for not only suggesting and inspiring this topic, but helping me define and pick out prime examples for this introduction. Uncleben naturally will be your guru, choosing and writing playlists from your suggestions.
One genre influences another, but in Jamaica, mento and calypso were the precursors of these genres, from which, in the late 50s, ska was the first to emerge, followed by rocksteady and reggae in the 1960s. It is these three, and the musical qualities that define them, that we wish to find in other music you nominate.
Not included here as a topic of influence, as parameters are necessary, is dub, a later sub-genre of reggae, starting when producers stripped back the vocals from reggae songs to create B-side instrumentals and then started emphasising the drum and bass in the mix - and playing around with reverb and echo and other effects, with the likes of King Tubby and Lee Perry as pioneers. And then there's also ragga – we'll put that aside too.
So it all began to emerge in the late 1950s and early 1960s with ska coming out of menta and calyso with a dash of American blues and the sound systems put together by Prince Buster, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, and Duke Reid. But if there's one song that could epitomise the ska scene, it's the Skatalites with Freedom Sounds. It feels so good to hear this again:
Ska then evolved into the more gentle, laid-back rocksteady, which spawned a number of truly great bands and singers, such as The Techniques, The Gaylads and The Paragons. A good representative song, naturally, is Alton Ellis’s Rocksteady.
Primarily it was the use of the bass guitar as a key rhythm instrument that turned rocksteady into reggae. And it was probably the 1972 film The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff that really introduced reggae to a wider audience, though the music was blossoming before that. And so, for example, 1969's Sweet and Dandy by Toots and the Maytals epitomises that innocent early reggae sound. They were perhaps also the first band to put the word into a song with Do the Reggay.
Reggae of course become heavily associated with the Rastafarian movement, through artists like Burning Spear, Bob Marley, The Abyssinians, Wailing Souls. And Uncleben's discerningly chosen favourite album of this genre is Heart of the Congos, particularly songs like Children Crying and Open up the Gate. Top choice!
We cannot ignore the role of reggae DJs or toasters, who were a key forerunner of hip hop, such as U-Roy, Big Youth, I-Roy, Dr Alimantado, Dennis Alcapone. Let's enjoy then, Train to Rhodesia by Big Youth, aka Manley Augustus Buchanan:
Sly and Robbie revolutionised the reggae sound, paving the way for dancehall, through tracks like 'Right Time' by the Mighty Diamonds.
The pair went on to work with a number of international artists. These may of course crop up in your nominations, but we're not giving away any more hints.
In the late 70s ska was blossoming with a second wave through 2 Tone in the Coventry area and elsewhere, and reggae was perhaps having it's biggest influence into pop music. By the early 1980s dancehall marked a shift away from roots reggae, with artists such as Barrington Levy and Frankie Paul. This era also saw the rise of more female artists in the reggae scenes - a good example being Sister Nancy and Bam Bam:
By this time, the roots of ska, rocksteady and reggae were all over the world and as well as the popular genres, we're particularly looking for African and Asian interpretations of them, especially when blended with other indigenous music.
Not surprisingly, a host of musicians have flocked to the bar now to tell us how they love reggae and more, and what it means. And with that we've got a barbecue on, plus plenty of rice and peas, plantain, and a special relaxing of certain laws as a distinct atmosphere is infused among us. As Bob Marley says: "When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself."
Bob progeny of course have not shortage of things to say. Here's Stephen Marley for starters: "Reggae music is a music of integrity; reggae's consciousness was built on a message. My music speaks of love, equality and spirituality, and I would hope that one finds this integrity in my music."
And here's Damian Marley, who is going back to his roots: "In Jamaica, them always have throwback riddims, recycled old beats, and the hardcore reggae scene is always present. You have faster stuff like the more commercialised stuff, but you always have that segment of music that is always from the core, from the original root of it."
And of course here's Ziggy: "Reggae has a philosophy, you know? It's not just entertainment. There's an idea behind it, a way of life behind the music, which is a positive way of life, which is a progressive way of life for better people."
But when reggae's influence began to spread, it naturally underwent changes. Here's the great Jimmy Cliff all about that: "When I lived in the U.K., I recorded a lot of ska and rock-steady styles of Jamaican music. But people there weren't accepting it. So I began using a faster reggae beat."
We've already heard from Burning Spear, aka Winston Rodney, but here's got more to add: "Reggae music don't really focus on one thing, you know. If reggae music is speaking about the struggle of people, and the suffering, it don't mean black people. It mean people in general."
Or ones who practise other genres. Here's hip hop's Nas: " Well, my earliest memories of rap music was mixed with my earliest memories of reggae music. They were big sounds around the way, heavy bass lines, strong messages." And now the Canadian rapper Tory Lanez joins in, with how reggae goes in and out of fashion: "Reggae goes in and out. It sounds so good, it feels so good and feels so tropical, but the problem is not everybody is Caribbean. Not everyone is going to sound authentic doing it, and sometimes it comes off cheesy when other people do it."
'White man's reggae' is a term that can imply embarrassing, cheesy naffness, and some have failed badly on that score, but others succeed when they infuse it with other genres. Boy George has swanned stylishly into the bar. He no longer has his dreadlocks, but explains reggae's role in his career: "In the early part of the '70s, we had glam rock, but we also had reggae and ska happening at the same time. I just took all those influences I had as a kid and threw them together, and somehow it worked."
Now even Ike Turner is here, and he's not short of confidence in his own reggae integration skills: "I can put a hip-hop beat to reggae. That is, I can have real reggae in the drums and in the rhythm, and on top of it I can put The Rolling Stones' feeling, anyone's feeling on top. Nobody has ever done this before, man."
Yeah man. And current American singing-songwriting star Bruno Mars acknowledges how "in Hawaii, some of the biggest radio stations are reggae. The local bands are heavily influenced by Bob Marley."
Peter Hook's dropped in for a pint of Red Stripe too, and says he "plays a lot of hard, uncompromising dance music; it can be anything from dance to rock to reggae."
Finally the genre is summed up by Lupe Fiasco: "Reggae, oh man. It's the ultimate music. The positivity. The musicality. The whole cultural expressionism of it. The danceability. Just the cool factor. The melody factor. Some of it comes from a religious place. If there were a competition of who makes the best religious music, it would definitely be the Rastafarian reggae."
There are a huge number of very prominent songs never before picked that are influenced by reggae, ska or rocksteady, so the goal is wide open for you, dear readers. And not wishing to spoil the party, we're not going to name any, but here's a couple of contrasting songs that have been picked for other topics as examples, so can't make the A-list.
Over to you, then, for the many treasures that await. And over also to the toastmaster in chief, our very own fantastic Uncleben, who will pick playlists from your influenced nominations published next Wednesday. Deadline? Even reggae has to have one – 11pm on Monday. As is often said, the only good system is a sound system. So let's turn it right up …
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.