As we continue to briefly explore the phases of Jamaican music, we move from Mento to another genre of music known as Ska. In the 1950s to 60s, the music on the American landscape transitioned into be-bop and rhythm and blues. Jamaica’s Mento music also evolved into Ska, which is said to be an extension of Mento with a mixture of calypso, jazz and rhythm and blues. It was during this period in our musical history that sound systems and weekend dances or `sessions’ began.
The music of the day was played by disc jockeys at these sessions to provide entertainment, as many persons did not own radios and it was only at these events that they could hear the latest music. Two popular sound systems of that era were owned by Duke Reid and Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd. Derrick Morgan and Prince Busta were among the vocalists. The `clashes’ between singers and the rivalry between sound systems is not a new phenomenon in Jamaica as it began in those early days. The “rude boy” mentality also began to surface.
As those in the industry experimented with the music, the rhythm slowed down somewhat and Ska gave rise to Rocksteady round about 1966. Rocksteady is a slow, steady rhythm sometimes accompanied by a dance move known as `Skank’. Recordings such as: Ruff and Tuff by Stranger Cole (produced by Duke Reid), Simmer Down by The Wailers (produced by Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd), Cry Tough by Alton Ellis (produced by Duke Reid) and Tougher Than Tough, recorded by The Heptones belong to the Rocksteady category, done in the 1960s to 70s. While Rocksteady grew in Jamaica it also became very popular in the United Kingdom and other countries. One of the favourite artistes was Desmond Dacres (aka Desmond Dekker) who sang 007 Shanty Town and his biggest hit Israelites which became #1 not only in Britain but also in Canada, West Germany, Holland, Sweden and South Africa and #9 in the U.S.
It is not clear how Reggae music got its name but there are several theories. Somewhere between 1967 and 1968, as new beats were discovered, this kind of music emerged. Musicians who began with Ska and Rocksteady moved over to reggae; Alton Ellis, The Wailers (which includes Bob Marley), Ken Boothe, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, are just a few. In the 1970s into 80s the music grew by leaps and bounds and created opportunities for many new singers to come out of the woodwork and begin recording. Producers such as Lee `Scratch’ Perry (previously employed to Clement `Coxsone’ Dodd) and Bunny Lee (who previously worked with Duke Reid while operating his Home Town Hi Fi) along with an engineer named Osbourne Ruddock (aka King Tubby) started their own record labels. The Wailers left their producer, Clement Dodd and created a label of their own called Wailin’ Soul before later joining Lee `Scratch’ Perry, who played a major role in their success.
During the weekend session/dances there were guys who chanted and toasted over the microphone as the music played. This gave the music a different sound and effect and led to the birth of the Disc Jockey (DJ) and Dance Hall Music. King Tubby was one of the producers who worked with the DJs and encouraged this form of music. Ewart Beckford, also known as U-Roy, Big Youth and I-Roy were among the best DJs. It was they who laid the foundation for others like: Yellow Man, Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Lady Saw and Agent Sasco to name only a few.
The Mento, Ska, Rocksteady, reggae and dance hall artistes of the past paved the way for the modern day entertainers who are too numerous to mention; however, two persons who would be fresh in the minds of everyone are: Tessanne Chin, last season’s winner of The Voice and Vybz Kartel, one of Jamaica’s most famous DJs who was recently sentenced to life imprisonment.
There are many persons who played different kinds of roles in the evolution of Jamaican music, too numerous to mention in this article. Jamaica needs to preserve and protect this legacy and to constantly strive for improvement in rhythm and content.
By Sheryl Ellis
Sheryl Ellis has a passion for writing, proofreading and business. Her professional experience has spanned the banking, industrial security and public sectors where she served for over 20 years.