Jamaican Pop Before Reggae
by Jason Gubbels | April 1, 2013
Bob Marley's international success always threatens to eclipse the musical diversity of his homeland. Although reggae rightly stands as Jamaica's most famous export, it was preceded (and followed by) styles and genres notable in their own right. Most accounts agree that reggae proper emerged in 1968, following a decade during which the swing of American rhythm and blues was slowly merged with the melodies of traditional and popular Caribbean tunes. Although Marley's predecessors have been less celebrated and anthologized, the island's musical culture cannot be appreciated without a stroll down the back lanes of rock steady, ska, blue beat and mento.
Folklorists Edric Connor and Louise Bennett recorded adaptations of traditional Jamaican music in the early 1950s, helping popularize "Day-O (Banana Boat)" before Harry Belafonte (himself partly of Jamaican heritage) brought it to the American charts in 1957. The predominant form of Jamaican popular music through the 1950s was mento, folk music featuring banjo and rhumba box, similar to nearby Trinidadian calypso (indeed, mento was often marketed in the West as calypso, and vice versa). Moving easily between Jamaica and Trinidad, mento/calypso stars boasted many competing honorary titles: Lord Creator, Lord Kitchener, Lord Flea, Lord Composer.
Even at the height of mento, Jamaican audiences were devouring American rhythm and blues and jazz. "Bluebeat" records from 1959 and 1960 by Laurel Aitken ("Judgement Day"), Theophilus Beckford ("Easy Snappin'") and Derrick Morgan (blues boogie hit "Fat Man") helped synthesize mento's lilt with R&B's forward drive, soon leading to ska. An upbeat, piano and horn-driven variation on R&B shuffle, ska would dominate clubs and the emerging Jamaican music industry for the first half of the 1960s, helping launch the careers of future superstars Jimmy Cliff ("Hurricane Hattie"), Toots and the Maytals ("Six and Seven Books of Moses") and Bob Marley ("Simmer Down," a massive hit for The Wailers in 1964). Other outfits focused on smoking instrumentals, like the legendary Skatalites or groups headed by Don Drummond and Prince Buster.
Sometime in 1966, ska's fast rhythms slowed noticeably (apocryphal stories credit an especially warm summer taking its toll on weary dancers). Roy Shirley, Alton Ellis and Hopeton Lewis all lay claim to crafting the first rock steady recording, with less-frantic rhythms that emphasized the second and fourth beats of each bar. Though its popularity was short lived, the style served as the final bridge between earlier Jamaican genres and reggae, while also introducing some of the music's best-loved characters (Prince Buster's "Judge Dread") and songs (The Paragons' 1967 Jamaican hit "The Tide Is High" would rise to the top of the U.S. and U.K. charts in 1980 at the hands of Blondie). Here's a playlist introduction to all of it.