Monday 6 August 2012, 15:05
For such a small island, Jamaica's musical influence has been immense. In 1962, when it gained its independence and first flew the distinctive gold, green and black flag, its singers, musicians and their producers declared musical independence too.
Over the past fifty years, the island's bass-heavy sounds, its gifted vocalists and musicians and its innovative studio techniques have spread around the globe and had a profound effect on music of all sorts. Last month BBC Radio 6 Music celebrated The Rolling Stones, the month before punk and in May dance culture… Jamaican music has left its mark on each.
Throughout August we celebrate 50 years of Jamaican independence with a wealth of programmes about its greatest export. Originators Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert visit BBC Radio 6 Music to perform live. Don Letts, David Rodigan, Colin Grant and Gideon Coe play the tunes and explain how Jamaica changed music fundamentally with innovative sounds such as dub (the original drum 'n' bass) and toasting (a precursor to rap) absorbed around the globe,.
We have searched the BBC radio archives for documentaries, concerts and sessions (many recorded for John Peel, an early champion of reggae). We feature Bob Marley & the Wailers, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Burning Spear, Culture, Horace Andy, Mikey Dread and others, as well as UK artists inspired by Jamaican sounds.
Reggae Originator Jimmy Cliff
The origins of Jamaican music
Jamaica's declaration of musical independence came in 1962 with ska. Its celebratory feel was a reflection of Jamaica's new-found confidence, and its infectious beat and sound were revived both in the UK in the late seventies and in the USA in the eighties.
Recording The Upsetter - Lee Scratch Perry In His Own Words (beginning on 7th August) was a wonderful experience - you can hear his jewellery rattling as he dances in the studio to the music he enjoyed and made. The extraordinary producer told me how much he had loved original 'yank' rhythm and blues music and Fats Domino in particular. Scratch revealed that his hit Return of Django is based on Domino's Sick and Tired.
Crucially though, Jamaican producers such as Scratch, Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster and their inventive musicians put their own interpretation on rhythm and blues and jazz. They gave it a new beat and so created a brand new sound. That sound developed from ska into rocksteady then reggae, dub, dancehall and more.
The music was promoted at packed outdoors dances, where selectors played their records through improvised sound systems. Giant speaker cabinets were piled high and tannoy horns tied up in trees. Sounds systems travelled the island in large trucks and have since sprung up around the world. Sound system culture took over London's Notting Hill Carnival in the seventies.
As Don Letts points out, Jamaica's music has been a reliable social barometer, and times have sometimes been tough. Before long, the initial optimism of independence wore off as the economic and political realities began to bite and disaffected rude boys made their presence felt. The beat slowed down and the more brooding, reflective sound of rocksteady emerged. Reggae evolved from rocksteady and its lyrics often contained an element of reportage or commentary.
The extraordinary Lee "Scratch" Perry
Importing Jamaican sounds
The music travelled with Jamaicans who chose to make a new life in Britain and kept them and their children in touch with the island. As Don Letts explains in Tighten Up (beginning on 14th August), entrepreneur Chris Blackwell and record labels such as Trojan started to cater for Jamaican settlers in the UK. To everyone's surprise, the music also appealed to other British music lovers in the 60s,. Blackwell later used this foothold in the UK to introduce Bob Marley & the Wailers to a global audience.
Meanwhile, inventive as ever, despite limited resources and rudimentary homemade or adapted domestic equipment, pioneering producers such as Lee Perry, King Tubby and Errol Thompson developed dub. In their hands, the studio mixing desk became an instrument in its own right. Existing tracks were stripped down, remixed and, with the use of echo and other effects, woven into thrilling new soundscapes. Dub techniques have been hugely influential in many other genres all around the world ever since.
Another Jamaican musical innovation that emerged with dub was toasting or deejaying. At the dances, originators such as U-Roy and King Stitt, followed by the likes of I-Roy and Big Youth, would talk over dubplates of songs from which the vocal had been mixed out. These unique, exciting performances captivated the crowds at dances and soon appeared on disc. Clearly, this was a major influence on rap and hip hop, which revolutionised music in the late 1970s.
Don Letts also explains how Jamaican music helped to empower him and others of his generation, born in Britain to parents who'd come from Jamaica. Don remembers going into the cinema in Brixton as a youth struggling for an identity, watching Jimmy Cliff starring in The Harder They Come, getting his first glimpse (other than picture postcards) of Jamaica and walking out a different man. He explains how black and white Britons loved the sounds of Jamaica and how empowering the music was for him and his peers.
Don Letts (4th and 25th August), David Rodigan (every Sunday in August), Colin Grant (5th August) and Gideon Coe (6th August) play all the crucial tunes. Documentaries presented by Brinsley Forde (Island Rock starting on 4th August) and dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (From Mento to Lovers' Rock beginning 12th August) explain Jamaican music's development. Hail the King (24th August) explores Rastafari and the influence of Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie I, who visited Jamaica in 1966. The Record Producers (starting on 22nd August), reveals how Jamaican music and pioneering studio techniques influenced recording the world over and how reggae crossed over into the pop market.
Since Jamaica gained independence, its music, style, food, language and culture have spread and been enjoyed around the world. Its motto is 'Out of Many, One People'. Fifty years on, Jamaica's musical heritage provides a remarkable tribute to the rich mix of creative people who have come from this unique island.