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#WYNTK: Ska & Reggae

How the sound systems of Jamaica took over the world


Published: 28 Feb 2023

Time taken : >15mins

Jamaica is known for many wonderful things—beautiful beaches, Rastafarian spirituality, fleet-footed sprinters, and full-bodied rum. But undoubtedly, the tiny island’s most beloved export has to be its iconic music. For over 75 years, ska and reggae have not only imprinted Jamaican identity and culture in the global consciousness, but permanently revolutionised everything from punk rock to electronic dance music around the world.

The roots of ska

For the first half of the 20th century, the predominant genre in Jamaica was a form of acoustic folk music called mento, based on the old rhythmic traditions of enslaved West Africans in the colony. Often performed in the streets, mento musicians used portable instruments such as guitar, banjo, bongos and kalimba. Similarly, Trinidad’s calypso was popular all over the Caribbean—a lilting style characterised by its call-and-response French creole vocals, sociopolitical lyricism and syncopated 2/4 beat.

Following World War II, Jamaica’s move toward urbanisation introduced everyday Jamaicans to overseas pop music via newly accessible radios, or records disseminated by American servicemen. In particular, Jamaicans were drawn to big band jazz acts such as those led by Count Basie or Duke Ellington, as well as New Orleans rhythm & blues artists like Fats Domino and Jelly Roll Morton.

Soon after, soundsystem culture (street and dancehall parties featuring DJs and powerful, homemade speaker systems) was in full swing when influential DJs like Stranger Cole, Prince Buster, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Duke Reid gathered to spin American R&B records in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the same time, local musicians who used to cover American hits began recording their own material—fusing strains of mento and calypso alongside elements of American jazz and R&B to create what would come to be known as ska. Legendary guitarist Ernest Ranglin surmises that the term was coined by musicians "to talk about the skat! skat! skat! scratchin’ guitar strum that goes behind".

Music historians trace the “behind-the-beat” feel of ska to the emphasis on the afterbeat that characterised R&B in those days. The up-stroke guitar rhythms and syncopated backbeats taken from R&B, later known as the “skank”, led to the skanking dance style, while the omnipresent horn-led melodies of big band became a signature component of ska’s hybrid concoction. Some of the earliest acts that pioneered this form included Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and the Skatalites, the last of which performed at Esplanade’s Mosaic Music Festival in the mid-2000s.

Ska’s (rock)steady evolution to reggae

When discussing ska’s evolution to reggae, it’s important not to forget rocksteady, the overlooked genre that found Jamaican bands slowing down tempos, amping up booming backbeat basslines and focusing more on vocal harmonies. While rocksteady’s heyday in Jamaica was short lived in the late-1960s, the genre presents an important bridge between ska and reggae.

As reggae developed, song tempos slowed even further, syncopated bass lines and one-drop drum beats became louder, and the ubiquitous horn lines found in ska were diminished. Meanwhile, skanking guitars grew in prominence, alongside the genre’s increased focus on a single lead singer. Most notable to casual listeners was reggae’s stark contrast to the upbeat, dance-friendly nature of ska. Even the lyricism of reggae differed radically from the fun and light-hearted content of its predecessors, aspiring to be deeper—politically and spiritually—as encapsulated by the genre’s most recognisable artist, Bob Marley.

While reggae had been brewing for a few years already, its name was finally coined in 1968 by Toots and the Maytals’ popular single Do the Reggay. That same year, songs like Nanny Goat by Larry Marshall, No More Heartaches by The Beltones, Israelites by Desmond Dekker and People Funny Boy by Lee "Scratch" Perry broke big in Kingston and helped define the genre’s sound for years to come.

Going global

By the 1970s, both ska and reggae were making waves far beyond the shores of Jamaica.

Second wave

As ska was supplanted by reggae back home, the genre found a resurgence overseas, particularly in the United Kingdom, in what has come to be known as ska’s second wave. Led by English record label 2 Tone, which housed bands like English Beat, The Specials and Bad Manners, these British bands fused traditional ska rhythms and melodies with punk rock's faster tempos, aggressive edge and progressively political lyricism. Not only did 2 Tone’s bands have mutiracial lineups, they opposed Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government while actively promoting racial unity and integration through their music.

Third wave

Through the late-1980s and 1990s, ska’s so-called third wave (later known as ska-punk or skacore) reached North America where US bands built upon the genre’s foundations by layering elements of pop-punk into the mix and downplaying its R&B influences. Featuring distorted guitar riffs, faster tempos and large horn sections, bands such as Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, No Doubt, Sublime, Goldfinger and Less Than Jake achieved mainstream recognition.

The genre also blew up around the world during this era, as acclaimed bands like The Busters (Germany), The Porkers (Australia), Distemper (Russia), Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (Japan) and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (Argentina), among others, proudly carried the ska banner across every continent.

Perhaps nobody is as pivotal to reggae’s worldwide rise as Bob Marley and his band The Wailers. Despite first forming as a ska and dancehall outfit, Marley, guitarist Peter Tosh, percussionist Bunny Wailer and bassist Aston Barrett transitioned to reggae in the late-60s to produce a string of hit albums like Burnin' (1973) and Exodus (1977). Meanwhile, Jamaican crime film The Harder They Come, starring reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, became a surprise success internationally, helping to introduce Jamaican music via cinema.

As soon as Eric Clapton’s cover of Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff populated pop radio playlists, reggae became an international phenomenon in the 1970s. Around the same time, prominent American singers like Johnny Nash and Paul Simon bubbled up the Billboard Hot 100 charts with hits like I Can See Clearly Now and Mother and Child Reunion (recorded in Kingston with Jimmy Cliff's band), exposing the genre to a whole new audience. While considered a fad, America’s embrace of reggae continued for decades, with outfits like Blondie covering The Paragons’ The Tide Is High and hip hop great Snoop Dogg embarking on a reggae project as Snoop Lion.

Rude boys colonise Britain

Back in England, the punk scene was similarly swept up during this period due to the country’s large Jamaican migrant community, and DJs like Don Letts playing reggae tracks at seminal punk club The Roxy. This led to eminent bands such as The Clash covering Junior Murvin’s Police And Thieves and Willie Williams’ Armagideon Time, even as they composed their own reggae hits like Bankrobber and Complete Control (produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry). Other bands like the Ruts and the Slits followed suit—with songs where Jamaican patois intermingled with Cockney slang, and Rastafarian themes such as spiritualism and resistance to government oppression were replaced by inner city issues. On the flip side, popular acts such as UB40, The Police and Smiley Culture dominated the airwaves with reggae hits.

Simultaneously, a more romantic subgenre of reggae called lover’s rock (popularised by The Clash’s single Lover’s Rock on their London Calling LP) emerged in London in the mid-1970s. Led by female stars such as Louisa Marks and Janet Kay, lover’s rock not only offered an apolitical counterpoint, but it also brought women to the forefront of the genre’s male-dominated base. To better understand the subgenre, and experience how Jamaica’s soundsystem culture became a cornerstone of Black British youths, Steve McQueen's acclaimed film Lovers Rock is highly recommended.

How DJs and dub carried on ska and reggae’s legacy

While ska and reggae remain entrenched in popular culture, their most enduring legacy is in how they helped shape other genres. In the Bronx, New York, Jamaican immigrants brought over soundsystem culture, giving rise to the likes of Jamaican-born turntablist Kool Herc, who used DJ techniques invented back home, alongside practices such as “toasting” (the act of rhythmic chanting over a beat), to become one of the originators of hip-hop and rap.

Perhaps reggae’s influence can be most pervasively felt within electronic music. In the early days of reggae, producers like Errol Thompson and King Tubby would remix tracks by removing (or stripping-back) vocals, turning up the bass and drums, and manipulating samples with echo and reverb effects. The result was the invention of a subgenre called dub, which would become the catalyst for many strains of rave music in the coming decades, evolving into new genres such as jungle, drum and bass, UK garage, grime, dubstep, reggaeton and so much more.

The impact of ska and reggae on global pop culture cannot be overstated, pollinating the essence of the Jamaican spirit into far-flung diasporic corners, in many different forms. Even in Southeast Asia, the legacy of ska and reggae thrives in some of our region’s finest musicians. These are just four that you should check out.

1 | Cesspit

This Singaporean six-piece may have started as an Oi! band (a subgenre of punk), but since their transition to ska, the group has been celebrated for their catchy tunes, crazy horn blasts and skanking melodies.

2 | Gerhana Skacinta

Active for the last quarter century, this legendary Malaysian band are renowned for their rootsy and vibrant take on ska, reggae, rocksteady and dub.

3 | Srirajah Rockers

Hailing from Thailand, Srirajah Rockers are one of the region's most soulful reggae acts, combining elements of lover's rock and luk thung (Thai country music) into their downtempo sound.

4 | Masia One

Perhaps no reggae-influenced artist in Singapore has made it as big as rapper Masia One, who has not only worked with Pharrell and Dr. Dre overseas, but also founded Singapura Dub Club back home.

Cesspit will be performing at the Outdoor Theatre on 31 Mar 2023, as part of Soul Jam 2023. Soul Jam is taking place from 24 to 31 Mar 2023. Find out more here.

Contributed by:

Hidzir Junaini

Hidzir Junaini is a freelance journalist in Singapore, currently covering film & television for publications such as NME Asia and Popwire. He has previously served as a writer and editor for various pop culture magazines such as inSing, JUICE Singapore, Bandwagon, MTV Asia, Straatosphere, and VICE, among others.

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