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Reggae Facts
Genres > Reggae
Reggae Analysis

About Reggae
Reggae is a unique fusion of local folk music with outside influences. The local folk music was a Jamaican form called mento – which used saxophones, flutes, bamboo fifes, PVC pipes, banjos, violins, bamboo fiddles, guitars, rhumba boxes, double-basses, rhythm sticks, shakkas and drums, played with both sticks and hands. But in the 40s and 50s Jamaicans were also listening to music from the US – jazz, bebop, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll.

On a poor island like Jamaica many couldn't afford a radio so sound systems would travel the countryside, setting up in open spaces, to play all the latest hits. With a number of local record labels set up in the 50s, Jamaican performers would knock out R&B copies until, in 1960, ska evolved. A strange reverse rhythm was born – mm-cha mm-cha mm-cha - which emphasised the offbeats, as the guitar skank became a constant in reggae's evolution.

Rock steady, with its slower beat and irregular bass lines, replaced ska several years later – apparently during one intensely hot summer which forced dancers to move more slowly.

Somehow the name rock steady transformed to reggae. "Do The Reggay", Frederick "Toots" Hibbert's 1968 track is one suggested source of the word. Reggae brought the bass guitar to the forefront of the music, providing new rhythmic complexities between itself and the trap-drum set, an early form of a drum-kit with percussion attached. One particular characteristic of the rhythm was the split-second silences between beats in a bar.

The beat was further subdivided, which led to more complex rhythms. As the bass became practically the lead instrument, the guitar was relegated to changa – a mixed-down, thin, trebly scratching at a chord – in stark contrast to the soaring melodic solos characteristic of rock. A brass section was often added. Chord changes were kept to a minimum with, often, six-minute or more numbers sitting on only one or two chords.

The mainstay of reggae to this day has been the bass and drums – big beats and lots of bass, with only the occasional mid to high frequency instruments. This was taken to an extreme with the dub reggae style, which ended up being simply drum, bass and the occasional ghostly snatch of sample from other tracks.

The brass section is often gloriously out-of-tune, part of the folk roots flavour of the music – enjoying the experience of playing it, not looking for musical perfection.

And we can see how reggae has influenced modern music in other ways. During the ska era, DJs at the various Jamaican sound-systems had begun "toasting," or rapping, over the instrumental B-sides of records, perhaps a pivotal point in the role of the DJ. Nowadays rap is one of the most successful musical genres in the world.

Lyrically, much of reggae's later output, thanks to artists like Bob Marley – the biggest star the music has ever produced – has been a form of protest, reflecting the often difficult conditions in Jamaica.

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