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What Is Reggae?
Reggae is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s. The term also denotes the modern popular music of Jamaica and its diaspora. A 1968 single by Toots and the Maytals, “Do the Reggay” was the first popular song to use the word “reggae”, effectively naming the genre and introducing it to a global audience.
While sometimes used in a broad sense to refer to most types of popular Jamaican dance music, the term reggae more properly denotes a particular music style that was strongly influenced by traditional mento as well as American jazz and rhythm and blues, especially the New Orleans R&B practiced by Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint, and evolved out of the earlier genres ska and rocksteady.
Reggae usually relates news, social gossip, and political commentary. Reggae spread into a commercialized jazz field, being known first as “rudie blues”, then “ska”, later “blue beat”, and “rock steady”. It is instantly recognizable from the counterpoint between the bass and drum downbeat and the offbeat rhythm section. The immediate origins of reggae were in ska and rocksteady; from the latter, reggae took over the use of the bass as a percussion instrument
Reggae is deeply linked to Rastafari, an Afrocentric religion which developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, aiming at promoting Pan Africanism. Soon after the Rastafarian movement appeared, the international popularity of reggae music became associated with and increased the visibility of Rastafarianism spreading the Rastafari gospel throughout the world. Reggae music is an important means of transporting vital messages of Rastafarianism. The musician becomes the messenger, and as Rastafarians see it, “the soldier and the musician are tools for change.
The 1967 edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English lists reggae as “a recently estab. sp. for rege”, as in rege-rege, a word that can mean either “rags, ragged clothing” or “a quarrel, a row”. Reggae as a musical term first appeared in print with the 1968 rocksteady hit “Do the Reggay” by The Maytals which named the genre of Reggae for the world.
Bob Marley claimed that the word reggae came from a Spanish term for “the king’s music”. The liner notes of To the King, a compilation of Christian gospel reggae, suggest that the word reggae was derived from the Latin regi meaning “to the king”.
Reggae’s direct origins are in the ska and rocksteady of 1960s Jamaica, strongly influenced by traditional Caribbean mento and calypso music, as well as American jazz and rhythm and blues. Ska was originally a generic title for Jamaican music recorded between 1961 and 1967 and emerged from Jamaican R&B, which was based largely on American R&B and doo-wop. Rastafari entered some countries primarily through reggae music; thus, the movement in these places is more stamped by its origins in reggae music and social milieu. The Rastafari movement was a significant influence on reggae, with Rasta drummers like Count Ossie taking part in seminal recordings. One of the predecessors of reggae drumming is the Nyabinghi rhythm, a style of ritual drumming performed as a communal meditative practice in the Rastafarian life.
Emergence in Jamaica
Reggae developed from ska and rocksteady in the late 1960s. Larry And Alvin’s “Nanny Goat” and the Beltones’ “No More Heartaches” were among the songs in the genre. The beat was distinctive from rocksteady in that it dropped any of the pretensions to the smooth, soulful sound that characterized slick American R&B, and instead was closer in kinship to US southern funk, being heavily dependent on the rhythm section to drive it along. Reggae’s great advantage was its almost limitless flexibility: from the early, jerky sound of Lee Perry’s “People Funny Boy”, to the uptown sounds of Third World’s “Now That We’ve Found Love”, it was an enormous leap through the years and styles, yet both are instantly recognizable as reggae.
Reggae’s influence bubbled to the top of the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts in late 1972. First Three Dog Night hit No. 1 in September with a cover of the Maytones’ version of “Black and White”. Then Johnny Nash was at No. 1 for four weeks in November with “I Can See Clearly Now”. Paul Simon’s single “Mother And Child Reunion” – a track which he recorded in Kingston, Jamaica with Jimmy Cliff’s backing group – was ranked by Billboard as the No. 57 song of 1972.
In 1973, the film The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff was released and introduced Jamaican music to cinema audiences outside Jamaica. Though the film achieved cult status its limited appeal meant that it had a smaller impact than Eric Clapton’s 1974 cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” which made it onto the playlists of mainstream rock and pop radio stations worldwide. Clapton’s “I Shot The Sheriff” used modern rock production and recording techniques and faithfully retained most of the original reggae elements; it was a breakthrough pastiche devoid of any parody and played an important part in bringing the music of Bob Marley to a wider rock audience.
Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding made February 2008 the first annual Reggae Month in Jamaica. To celebrate, the Recording Industry Association of Jamaica (RIAJam) held its first Reggae Academy Awards on February 24, 2008. In addition, Reggae Month included a six-day Global Reggae conference, a reggae film festival, two radio station award functions, and a concert tribute to the late Dennis Brown, who Bob Marley cited as his favorite singer. On the business side, RIAJam held events focused on reggae’s employment opportunities and potential international revenue. Reggae Month 2019 in Jamaica was welcomed with multiple events ranging from corporate reggae functions to major celebrations in honour of Bob Marley’s Birthday on February 6 to a tribute concert in honour of Dennis Brown on February 24 along with a sold out concert by 2019 Reggae Grammy nominated artiste Protoje for his A Matter of Time Live held at Hope Gardens in Kingston on February 23.
Stylistically, reggae incorporates some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, mento, calypso, African, and Latin American music, as well as other genres. Reggae scenes consist of two guitars, one for rhythm and one for lead—drums, congas, and keyboards, with a couple vocalists.
Drums and other percussion
A standard drum kit is generally used in reggae, but the snare drum is often tuned very high to give it a timbales-type sound. Some reggae drummers use an additional timbale or high-tuned snare to get this sound. Cross-stick technique on the snare drum is commonly used, and tom-tom drums are often incorporated into the drumbeat itself. “One drop” sixteenth-note drum pattern.
Reggae drumbeats fall into three main categories: One drop, Rockers, and Steppers. With the One drop, the emphasis is entirely on the backbeat (usually on the snare, or as a rim shot combined with bass drum). Beat one is empty except for a closed high hat commonly used, which is unusual in popular music. There is some controversy about whether reggae should be counted so that this beat falls on two and four, or whether it should be counted twice as fast, so it falls on three.