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The first Jamaican recording studio opened in 1951 and recorded "mento" music, a fusion of European and African folk dance music. The island was awash in rhythm'n'blues records imported by the so called "sound systems", eccentric traveling dance-halls run by no less eccentric disc-jockeys such as Clement Dodd (the "Downbeat") and Duke Reid (the "Trojan"). The poor people of the Jamaican ghettos, who could not afford to hire a band for their parties, had to content themselves with these "sound systems". The "selectors", the Jamaican disc-jockeys who operated those sound systems, became the real entertainers. The selector would spin the records and would "toast" over them. The art of "toasting", that usually consisted in rhyming vocal patterns and soon evolved in social commentary, became as important as the music that was being played.
In 1954 Ken Khouri started Jamaica's first record label, "Federal Records". He inspired Reid and Dodd, who began to record local artists for their sound system. Towards the end of the 1950s, amateurs began to form bands that played Caribbean music and New Orleans' rhythm'n'blues, besides the local mento. This led to the "bluebeat" groups, which basically were Jamaica's version of the New Orleans sound. They usually featured saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, drums and bass.
Soon the bass became the dominant instrument, and the sound evolved into the "ska". The "ska" beat had actually been invented by Roscoe Gordon, a Memphis pianist, with No More Doggin' (1951). Ska songs boasted an upbeat tempo, a horn section, Afro-American vocal harmonies, jazzy riffs and staccato guitar notes.
Theophilus Beckford cut the first "ska" record, Easy Snapping, in 1959, but Prince Buster (Cecil Campbell), owner of the sound system "Voice of the People", was the one who, around 1961, defined ska's somatic traits once and forever (he and his guitarist Jah Jerry).
The Wailers, featuring the young Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, slowed down the beat in Simmer Down (1963). Millie Small's My Boy Lollipop (1964) was the first worldwide ska hit. The charismatic leaders of the ska movement were the Skatalites, a group of veteran ex-jazzmen led by saxophonist Tommy McCook and featuring virtuoso trombonist Don Drummond and tenor saxophonist Rolando Alphonso, that formally existed only between 1964 and 1965 (Ball O' Fire, 1965; Phoenix City, 1966; the instrumental Guns Of Navarone, 1967), but ska's star was Desmond Dekker (Dacres), whose Israelites (1968) launched the even faster "poppa-top", and whose 007 Shanty Town (1967) and Rude Boy Train fueled the mythology of the "rude boy". Ska music was relatively serene and optimist, a natural soundtrack to that age of peace and wealth, somewhat akin to the music of the "swinging London".
Jamaica had become an independent country in 1962, but social problems had multiplied. During the mid Sixties, ska music evolved into "rock steady", a languid style, named after Alton Ellis' hit Rock Steady (1966), that emphasized sociopolitical themes, adopted electric instruments, replaced the horns with the guitars, and promoted the bass to lead instrument (virtually obliterating the drums). In other words, ska mutated under the influence of soul music. Rock steady was identified with the crowd of young delinquents (the "rude boys") who mimicked the British "mods" and the American "punks". Its generational anthems were Judge Dread (1967) by Prince Buster, John Holt's The Tide Is High (1966) by the Paragons, Rivers Of Babylon (1969) by the Melodians. The music took the back seat to the vocal harmonies. This helped bring about the supremacy of vocal groups: Wailers, Paragons, Maytals (the new name of the Vikings of the ska hit Halleluja, 1963), Pioneers, Melodians, Heptones, etc.
The word "reggae" was coined around 1960 in Jamaica to identify a "ragged" style of dance music, that still had its roots in New Orleans rhythm'n'blues. However, reggae soon acquired the lament-like style of chanting and emphasized the syncopated beat. It also made explicit the relationship with the underworld of the "Rastafarians" (adepts of a millenary African faith, revived Marcus Garvey who advocated a mass emigration back to Africa), both in the lyrics and in the appropriation of the African nyah-bingi drumming style (a style that mimicks the heartbeat with its pattern of "thump-thump, pause, thump-thump"). Compared with rock music, reggae music basically inverted the role of bass and guitar: the former was the lead, the latter beat the typical hiccupping pattern. The paradox of reggae, of course, is that this music "unique to Jamaica" is actually not Jamaican at all, having its foundations in the USA and Africa.
An independent label, Island, distributed Jamaican records in the UK throughout the 1960s, but reggae became popular in the UK only when Prince Buster's Al Capone (1967) started a brief "dance craze". Jamaican music was very much a ghetto phenomenon, associated with gang-style violence, but Jimmy Cliff's Wonderful World Beautiful People (1969) wed reggae with the "peace and love" philosophy of the hippies, an association that would not die away. In the USA, Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine (1967) was the first reggae hit by a pop musician. Shortly afterwards, Johnny Nash's Hold Me Tight (1968) propelled reggae onto the charts. Do The Reggay (1968) by Toots (Hibbert) And The Maytals was the record that gave the music its name. Fredrick Toots Hibbert's vocal style was actually closer to gospel, as proved by their other hits (54-46, 1967; Monkey Man, 1969; Pressure Drop, 1970).
A little noticed event would have far-reaching consequences: in 1967, the Jamaican disc-jockey Rudolph "Ruddy" Redwood had begun recording instrumental versions of reggae hits. The success of his dance club was entirely due to that idea. Duke Reid, who was now the owner of the Trojan label, was the first one to capitalize on the idea: he began releasing singles with two sides: the original song and, on the back, the instrumental remix. This phenomenon elevated the status of dozens of recording engineers.
Reggae music was mainly popularized by Bob Marley (1), first as the co-leader of the Wailers, the band that promoted the image of the urban guerrilla with Rude Boy (1966) and that cut the first album of reggae music, Best Of The Wailers (1970); and later as the political and religious (rasta) guru of the movement, a stance that would transform him into a star, particularly after his conversion to pop-soul melody with ballads such as Stir It Up (1972), I Shot The Sheriff (1973) and No Woman No Cry (1974).
Among the reggae vocal groups, the Abyssinians' Satta Massa Gana (1971) is representative of the mood of the era.
In 1972 reggae became a staple of western radio stations thanks to the film The Harder they come.
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