The History of Ska and Reggae

Ska is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s and was the precursor to rocksteady and reggae.  Ska combined elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues.

It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat.  Ska developed in Jamaica in the 1960’s when Prince Buster, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, and Duke Reid formed sound systems to play American rhythm & blues and then began recording their own songs.  In the early 1960’s, ska was the dominant music genre of Jamaica and was popular with British mods. Later it became popular with many skinheads.

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Music historians typically divide the history of ska into three periods: the original Jamaican scene of the 1960s; the English 2 Tone ska revival of the late 1970s, which fused Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with the faster tempos and harder edge of punk rock; and the third wave of ska, which involved bands from the UK, other European countries (notably Germany), Australia, Japan, South America and the US, beginning in the 1980s and peaking in the 1990s.

Reggae is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s. 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 and calypso music, 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.

Stylistically, reggae incorporates some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues, jazz, mento (a celebratory, rural folk form that served its largely rural audience as dance music and an alternative to the hymns and adapted chanteys of local church singing), calypso, African music, as well as other genres. One of the most easily recognizable elements is offbeat rhythms; staccato chords played by a guitar or piano (or both) on the offbeats of the measure. The tempo of reggae is usually slower than ska and rocksteady.   The concept of “call and response” can be found throughout reggae music.

The bass guitar often plays the dominant role in reggae. The bass sound in reggae is thick and heavy, and equalized so the upper frequencies are removed and the lower frequencies emphasized. The guitar in reggae usually plays on the off beat of the rhythm. It is common for reggae to be sung in Jamaican Patois, Jamaican English, and Iyaric dialects. Reggae is noted for its tradition of social criticism and religion in its lyrics, although many reggae songs discuss lighter, more personal subjects, such as love and socializing.

Reggae has spread to many countries across the world, often incorporating local instruments and fusing with other genres.  Reggae spread from mainland South American Caribbean from Venezuela and Guyana to the rest of South America. Caribbean music in the United Kingdom, including reggae, has been popular since the late 1960s, and has evolved into several subgenres and fusions.

Many reggae artists began their careers in UK, and there have been a number of European artists and bands drawing their inspiration directly from Jamaica and the Caribbean community in Europe.  Reggae in Africa was boosted by the visit of Bob Marley to Zimbabwe in 1980.

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