Academic journal article Notes

Reggae Music: A History and Selective Discography

Academic journal article Notes

Reggae Music: A History and Selective Discography

Article excerpt

This column offers brief reviews of recent compact disc releases in a variety of musical styles and genres, covering both new releases and reissues. In alternating issues, a discographic essay focusing on a specific genre, historical period, instrument, or style of music is featured.


Although reggae is generally considered an indigenous Jamaican music, its roots are actually deeply African American. Strong strains of both calypso and the Jamaican folk music called mento are obvious both in reggae's explicit political commentary and in its occasionally ribald humor, but the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the music has its most significant antecedent in the American soul music of the 1950s and 1960s, (1) particularly that which was being produced by the prolific Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Detroit recording studios of those decades, and which could be heard on clear Jamaican nights over the airwaves from Miami radio stations.

The insistent off-beat rhythmic pattern of soul music and rock'n'roll (in which emphasis is typically placed on beats two and four of a four-beat measure) would find a strange and unique expression in reggae music during the late 1960s and early 1970s; in the early days of the music's development, however, that pattern appeared as the trademark galloping backbeat of ska, a more upbeat and dance-oriented predecessor of reggae. Ska was based on a double-time version of the basic R & B rhythmic pattern (one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and). This rhythm's relationship to a polka beat is obvious, though there is a significant difference between the two approaches: whereas the horn players and keyboardist in a polka band will accent beats two and four along with the drummer, in ska the guitars and horns would execute chordal chops on the "and" of each beat, creating a rhythmic pattern in which the traditionally "strong beats (one and three) are almost wholly ignored while off-beats and traditionally "weak" beats (two and four) are all given great emphasis. The resulting rhythm was both unusually complex for the Western popular music of the time and almost irresistibly danceable.

Ska was fully developed by the mid-1960s, and although Jamaica produced many fine ska ensembles, the general critical consensus holds the Skatalites, led by the great saxophonist Tommy McCook (1932-1998), as the finest exponents of ska in this period. A two-compact disc set entitled Ska Bonanza: The Studio One Ska Years (Heartbeat CD-HB-86/87 [1991]) offers a very fine overview of the period, including several tracks by the Skatalites.

Ska has enjoyed revivals in Europe and the United States at approximately fifteen-year intervals ever since its Jamaican heyday in the 1960s; the "second wave" ska revival in England came in the wake of the punk rock explosion of the 1970s and produced such fine bands as the Specials, Madness and the Beat (known in America as the English Beat to distinguish it from a similarly named stateside band). Many of these artists recorded for the British Two Tone label, and the best introduction to second-wave ska remains a compilation entitled This Are Two Tone (Two Tone CHR TT 5007 [1983]; reissued on compact disc as Chrysalis F2 21745 [1996]). In the early 1990s a similar revival occurred, this time centered in the United States, and led to the national success of such modern ska bands as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake, and Reel Big Fish. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Let's Face It (Mercury 534472 [1997]) and Dance Hall Crashers' Honey, I'm Homely (MCA MCAD-11676 [1995]) both illustrate nicely the degree to which jazzy ska and aggressive punk rock had blended by the mid-1990s, while the Toasters' Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down (Moon Ska 123 [1997]) harks back explicitly to the British second-wave style.


Ska had a relatively limited expressive range, and it was inevitable that change would follow quickly upon its popular acceptance. …

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