Reggae Music, Dancehall, and the Subculture of Violence – Jamaica Observer


Alton Ellis

It is a historical irony that Black History Month and Reggae Month are celebrated in February. Jamaican music can be traced back to mento music, but the importation of the blues after World War II had a profound influence on early urban weekend activity in Kingston and St Andrew and other urban centres.

The dance ritual is a celebration of life that has served as an antidote to anomie and alienation. The dance and music ritual was integral to the South African liberation struggle and was a cultural catharsis in urban Jamaica of the 1950s and beyond.

Work in a pre-industrial or industrializing society can lead to alienation, and on weekends and even during the week, dances served as a way to let off steam and extrapolate joy from the often harsh realities of life.

The sound system was the instrument that provided the sound and often the dwelling place. Duke Reid and Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat were the two dominant sound systems. There were other sounds like V-Rocket, Lord Koos, King Edward, Tom’s the Great Sebastian, etc. Merritone would emerge at a later date.

From Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat came Studio One and the pioneering efforts to tap into the musical creativity of the Jamaican people. The development of the music must pay homage to Vere Johns who started promoting competition between artists in movie theaters like Palace and Ambassador. At the time, many artists from this pre-independence period imitated well-known American singers like Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Shirley and Lee, Frankie Lyman, etc.

Laurel Aiken is the first Jamaican artist who rejected the imitation of established singers in America. Aiken made a number of tracks in the 1950s and 1960s that were hits. Many other artists followed like Sang and Harriott, Derrick Morgan, Clancy Eccles, Alton Ellis, Dobbie Dobson and Boris Gardiner.

This genre of Jamaican music appeared in the pre-independence period. This contributed greatly to the Jamaican identity that mattered as the country developed politically and sought independence from Britain.

Early music was heavily influenced by American rhythm and blues which promoters like Duke Reid and Downbeat had purchased from the southern regions of the United States. The blues diet included Smiley Lewis, Gene and Eunice, Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Count Archibald, Rosco Gordon, and more. This love of the blues was superimposed on the musical creativity of Jamaican singers and instrumentalists.

There was an aggregation of Jamaican musicians that emerged initially as Studio One Band. These musicians then formed the Skatalites. The Skatalites included many of the great Jamaican horn blowers, many of whom were products of the Alpha Boys school. The late trombonist Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling, Dizzy Johnny Moore, drummer Lloyd Knibb; and Lloyd Brevett, the base player, as well as lead singer Doreen Shaffer. Not all of them were products of the Alpha Boys school. The Skatalites didn’t last long, and despite their genius, many of them struggled to make a living. But the music is immortalized in the albums they made and their multiple support of artists who were part of Sir Coxson’s Downbeat Studio 1 music academy.

This early music focused on non-political lyrics and, like the blues, romantic relationships. This is evident in the early music of The Wailers, Alton Ellis, Derrick Morgan and Delroy Wilson.

The music takes a turn based on the growing influence of the Rastafarian religion. The music of Count Ossie and Mystic Revelations reflected the cultural changes taking place at the base of Jamaican society. Earl Ossie’s band were from the mountains east of Kingston. The band included a saxophonist like Brother Gaynair, Dizzy trumpeter Johnny Moore, trombonist Rico Rodriquez, drummers playing “funde” and Count Ossie featured on the “repeata” drum. The band often took part in dances at Tiverton Road and other venues. The music of Count Ossie and Mystic Revelation brought to light much of the injustices of “Babylon” and reflected a desire for repatriation. Ras Michael in West Kingston also dramatized Rasta drumming and criticism of Jamaican society.

The artist who made an international impact on reggae music was Robert Nesta Marley. From his early writings of original songs and beats like Calm down and I don’t need your love, Marley demonstrated an incredible eye for originality, melody and lyrics. While he rejected the conventional wisdom existing in Jamaica, Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh found solace in the protest religion of Rastafari. When Marley came out with the albums Soul Rebel and soul revolutionit was evident that he had undergone a religious and cultural transformation.

Marley was determined to increase his visibility and his reggae music on the world stage. He was creative enough to tweak the music so that reggae beats would become internationally adopted.

Marley’s early albums created a new phase in Jamaican music history. Rather than Jamaica absorbing the external impact of contemporary music, Jamaican artists were forcing the world to embrace the creativity and global consciousness of the small island. The music began with the blues which invaded urban life in Jamaica from North America. The tables turned as Jamaica and reggae music became a musical genre that had a healthy impact on humanity.

Professor Basil ‘Bagga’ Wilson, a former Kingston College varsity star and Manning Cup football player, is a retired Provost of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, USA.

Robert Nesta Marley

Boris Gardiner

Nat King Cole

Don Drummond


Derrick Morgan

Duke Reid

Basil Wilson


Comments are closed.