Jamaican popular music has gone through various stages of transformation over a relatively short period. Reflecting the high and low points in Jamaican society; tuning up to suit the mood of the people at every juncture. Here is an overview of the genres that comprise Jamaican popular music.
Mento is commonly referred to as Jamaican calypso and although, to some extent, it resembles Trinidadian calypso, it is distinctly different in the beat. The music also holds pride of place as being Jamaica's first and, in a sense, most indigenous popular music.
Mento was, in fact, the first popular Jamaican music to be commercially recorded. The genre grew out of slavery and is stamped with its own flavour.
Slaves were not allowed to congregate and, of course, the idea of freedom of speech did not exist.
Communication came mainly through chanting lyrics brought to the West Indies from Africa. European plantation owners often thought the slaves were entertaining them and ordered the slaves to perform for them. This led to slaves incorporating elements of European melodies into their music to please their masters.
The year 1962 will long be remembered, not only as the birth year of Jamaica as an independent nation, but also as the birth year of Jamaica's foundation music – ska. Ska was indeed Jamaica's first legitimate popular music form, from which all others like rocksteady, reggae, and dancehall evolved.
For five years, between 1962 and 1966, the music called ska became the heartbeat of a nation in transition.
With its exciting and almost hypnotic beat, it rocked dancehalls as hearts throbbed in almost synchronous motion to its infectious beat which was inextricably entangled with the birth of the nation.
Somehow it seemed that the national exhilaration of freshly minted independence gave musicians this extra driving force to create this distinctive offbeat sound, although many claim it was a spontaneous happening.
Listen to ‘Jamaica Ska’
Rocksteady emerged in the wake of ska and lasted for only three years (1965-68), but produced a flood of singers and harmony groups such as Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Desmond Dekker, Ken Boothe and The Heptones.
The 1960s was a decade of radical political, social and cultural transformation that was reflected in the transitions in popular music. Hits such as No No No, The Tide Is High and By The Rivers of Babylon, rocksteady propelled Jamaica to the top of the world.
The rebellious reggae beat took off in the early 1970s when Jamaica was shedding the last chains of its colonial past. The hit movie The Harder They Come, showcasing a talented Jimmy Cliff, and a free-spirited Rastafarian singer named Bob Marley introduced Jamaican pop culture to a world audience.
Marley is credited with setting the pace for similar roots performers such as Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and The Mighty Diamonds. If rocksteady had classic melodies, reggae of the 1970s espoused rebellion.
Listen to Bob Marley’s ‘War’
There was a time when a 'live' deejay and a sound system were as inseparable as 'smoke and fire'. It was a relationship from which both benefited, as sound systems used the deejay as crowd-pullers and the deejay used the sound as a training ground.
Deejays who were linked with particular sounds point out that unlike today, where a deejay only needs studio time to make it big, many nights of 'bleaching' on the sound system was their ladder to stardom. As a result, many new acts linked up with sound systems to get their big break.
The beginning of deejaying on sound systems was said to have began with Count Matchukie, who selected on Tom the Great Sebastian's sound system. The boss of the sound went out to replenish the liquor supplies and Matchukie chose that time to 'talk over' the flip side of a 45 rpm selection. The 'dance bus' and deejaying was born in 1952. The deejay and the sound system became inextricable.
The modern dancehall's roots can be traced to the early 1980s when a brash Albino deejay called ‘Yellowman’ and a teenage singer named Barrington Levy scored underground and radio hits for Henry 'Junjo' Lawes, a colourful producer who operated the Volcano label and sound system. Singers, such as Sugar Minott and Tenor Saw, and deejay Super Cat, also came of age during the 1980s. A decade later, as American record companies began recognising dancehall; the beat invaded the Billboard charts, through Shabba Ranks, Patra, Mad Cobra and Super Cat.
That momentum has continued into the 21st century, mainly through the deejays. Shaggy and Sean Paul's Hot Shots and Dutty Rock are two of the best-selling albums of the last 10 years, while Junior Gong's Welcome to Jamrock is one of the decade's most powerful statements.
Listen to Junior Gong’s 'Welcome to Jamrock'
Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry consisting of spoken word over reggae rhythms, that originated in Jamaica in the 1970s. Oku Onura, Mutabaruka and the late Mikey Smith were the pioneers in Jamaica, while Linton Kwesei Johnson was at the forefront of the British scene.
The link between music and poetry has been around for years and is the root of dub poetry itself, but capturing the attention of a dancehall crowd often takes a lot of work, running, climbing, 'dutty wining' and more.