Reggae is a term that was coined sometime close to 1960. Derived from rege-rege, a Jamaican phrase meaning “rags or ragged clothing,” it is used to denote a raggedy style of music that grew up in Jamaica around that time.
Reggae is a genre of music that has its roots in a number of other musical styles. It incorporates influences from Jamaican music (both traditional Mento and contemporary Ska), as well as American Rhythm & Blues, which was broadcast from high-powered stations in New Orleans and Florida in the early days of radio, and could be easily picked up in Jamaica. Reggae’s closest musical relations are Ska and Rocksteady, popular in Jamaica during the 1950s and early 1960s. Reggae evolved from these other genres, really coming into its own later that decade.
Reggae shares many characteristics with Ska, such as a walking bass line with guitar and piano off-beats, but Ska is faster paced and also tends to incorporates jazz-influenced horn riffs. The genre was lauded by Jamaican youths around the time that the nation gained independence in 1962. Rocksteady slowed the Ska tempo right down. Played by smaller bands, it also used more syncopated bass patterns. This style is very close to Reggae and the dividing line between Rocksteady and early Reggae is not always easily distinguishable.
Reggae music is recognizable thanks to its drum rhythm, This means, for example, that the second and fourth beat would be emphasized when playing in 4/4 time. This is very typical of African-based musical genres, though uncommon in traditional forms of Asian or European music. Reggae also tends to use “double skank” guitar strokes on the offbeat, and lyrics often center on more sociopolitical themes.
Early reggae music had lyrics consistent in theme with its predecessor, Rocksteady, with songs often focusing on topics such as love. As the genre found its feet in the 70s though, it evolved in line with the Rastafarian movement that was sweeping Jamaica at the time, and lyrics of Reggae songs quickly developed a more sociopolitical or religious bent.
Many of the words used in reggae songs are incomprehensible to US and UK English speakers, as they are taken from traditional Jamaican patois or refer to Rastafarian concepts – for example Jah, meaning God. There is heavy use of Jamaican slang, a common example being Ganja, meaning marijuana. Cannabis is smoked as sacrament in the Rastafarian faith, as Rastafarians believe that smoking marijuana allows them to experience a closeness to God. This message in the songs has been open to much misinterpretation, particularly by American youth who have used this as an excuse to “get high.”
Reggae began to rise to international acclaim as the 1970s progressed. A seminal moment for the genre was the release of the 1973 movie The Harder They Come. The film reached a global audience and told the story of a young man making his way in urban Jamaica. Most importantly though, it had a soundtrack that consisted entirely of reggae hits, which helped elevate Reggae music to the mainstream. Of particular influence was the popular song You Can Get It if You Really Want by Jimmy Cliff that was featured on the soundtrack.
Of course, Bob Marley is the world’s best known and loved international Reggae ambassador. Marley’s career spanned more than a decade, beginning in 1963 with Rocksteady band, the Wailers, and culminating in the release of his 1977 solo album, Exodus, which achieved international acclaim. Marley was not only a Reggae singer, but a committed Rastafarian and a political activist. Through his music, his words and his actions, he earned forever a place in Reggae fans hearts around the world. Marley’s music was first popularized in the Wes by Eric Clapton performing a cover of Who Shot the Sheriff.
Since the 60s and 70s, Reggae music has spread and developed in many different ways around the world. This distinctive style was the precursor to modern Jamaican style Dub, as well as British bands, such as UB40, The Reggaskas; American Ska groups, such as Reel big Fish, Sublime and No Doubt; Jambands, such as the String cheese Incident; and even Rap and Hip-Hop. Of course, Reggae is still going strong in its pure form around the world too, with many modern Reggae bands achieving success in the mainstream.